• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

Telling Engineering Stories

Screen Shot 2012-09-26 at 5.37.57 PM

“The word ‘engineering’ sounds intimidating and nerdy and technical. There’s just so much more to it – I’m trying to make it more accessible.” – Goldieblox founder Debra Sterling.

By Amy-Willard Cross (Editor, Vitamin W)

Goldieblox is poised for a happy ending. With this new toy, girls may have a happy ending too: “She became an engineer and built things that helped people, and they all lived happily ever after.”

There’s a known female engineering deficit; women make up just 11% of the profession. It’s a problem that lots of smart men and women, universities, and non-profits have been trying to solve.

Mechanical engineer Debra Sterling thinks she can close the gap with storytelling, and a $30 toy.

Sterling’s nascent company, Goldieblox, makes a building toy that comes with books, an appealing character called Goldie and a few other plastic companions. Kids read the story and then build something – for example a wheel and axle to make a dancer spin.

This Stanford-educated engineer uses the power of story even in the marketplace. To coincide with her launch on Kickstarter, she lined up press for Goldieblox. Articles in The Atlantic and TechCrunch got the word out about Goldieblox, and over 900 news stories followed in the next week. Within days, Goldieblox pre-sold around 3,300 toys and raised over $150,000.

Sterling’s own story is pretty good: As a girl, Sterling had a halo of golden curls, and her parents wanted her to be an actress when she grew up. (Her grandmother was an animator at Disney who drew Mr. Magoo.) As a child, she never touched Lego or Knex – which were marketed mostly to boys. But she was good at math – really good. Still, she had never even heard of an engineer.

“I was applying to colleges, I always liked math and I loved my math teacher. I asked her to write a recommendation letter; she said I should consider engineering – that I’d really like it. But I didn’t even know what it was,” Sterling says.

So Sterling spent 12 years in school before anyone figured out that she might have a talent for building things. If not for a college recommendation, she may not have done a mechanical engineering degree at Stanford. It raises the question: how many other engineering-minded girls and young women might the system be missing?

Sterling worked towards a degree in mechanical engineering and studied user-centered design, which involves getting to know the people you’re designing for. After graduating, she went to work doing ethnographic research for a branding agency. And she started to think about how she could help change the ratio in engineering, so she wouldn’t be one of the few girls in the class. Her company’s statement makes it quite clear why: “We believe engineers can’t responsibly build our world’s future without the female perspective.”

“The word ‘engineering’ sounds intimidating and nerdy and technical. There’s just so much more to it – I’m trying to make it more accessible,” Sterling says. She did some ethnographic research and tested her toy on kids.

In her research, Sterling learned that girls who learned computer science with a storytelling component spent 42% more time programming and snuck in extra coding time. That technique certainly worked for American Girl dolls, which have used power of storytelling to sell 21 million dolls.

“Girls do like nurturing and helping people,” says Sterling, who points out that many women went into medicine in order to help people. “The same thing will happen with engineering once people realize what it is.” Indeed women engineers are doing a lot of helping – such as crowdsourcing slum shelter or creating affordable prosthetics.

Sterling eventually quit her job to develop the toy. She says she’s been helped by “a great handful of investors,” including the founder of Pictionary and women who are very passionate about the cause: Carla Lewis, president of the Washington Women’s Foundation, Evelyn Rozner, board president of Facing the Future, and Debbie Wright, an engineer and angel investor.

So the first chapter of Goldieblox ends with a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. And there’s more to come. Sterling lays out her “big huge vision”: “I want Goldieblox to become the next American Girl brand. I want her to be the next big thing. I want every little girl to grow up playing with a Goldiebox – not just this one, but the entire series – and do all the things that she builds.”

Sterling has an outline already for the next narrative arc: three more Goldie stories involving pulleys and gear systems are in development as is the addition of friends Ruby and Rosy who add diversity to the building team.

After finishing the books, girls do creative play. Sterling says, “It’s fun to watch. I’ve seen multiple girls come up with scenarios: the dog dies and they have to build him a grave. They use a slingshot to throw the angry cat. It’s playing make believe which is the most fun part.”

This post originally appeared on Vitamin W

About the guest blogger: Amy-Willard Cross is the editor of Vitamin W, a platform for news, business and philanthropy. A former editor at national magazines, she authored books, written countless articles, features, op-eds and book reviews. Once while working on a documentary, she found an American who had fought with Fidel. She wants her daughter to learn how to code as the pay gap is only 6% for women programmers. Follow her on Twitter at @VitaminWomen.