Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or “STEM,” as these fields are collectively called nowadays) are overcrowded with dudes. Why are these fields so gender-imbalanced? Does it have to do with girls’ innate preferences, or is it a kind of learned avoidance that starts in childhood? The creators of Roominate, an educational toy designed to get girls interested in STEM subjects, are living proof that having a pair of X chromosomes is no barrier to success in science and engineering. Alice Brooks, Jennifer Kessler, and Bettina Chen studied mechanical engineering, neuroscience, and electrical engineering at some of the best universities in the world, and with Roominate, they hope to give young girls a way to encounter geeky creativity as early as possible.
Roominate is essentially a classic “girl” toy–a dollhouse–updated with hacker appeal. Instead of a prefab cottage with 1950s decor, Roominate is “a stackable, attachable, and customizable miniature room with working circuits that you build yourself.” A girl can build out the room to tell whatever imaginative story she likes, and then connect up circuits and other interactive elements to bring it to life. Take that, American Girl Store!
But wait a minute: Isn’t a dollhouse jammed with wires just another “gendered” toy retrofitted with some techy stuff? Lego Mindstorms already exist, and offer a lot of the same educational play experiences–so why should girls need something like Roominate? “We started with a toy that girls already love, and added educational components that make the toy even more engaging,” Alice Brooks tells Co.Design. “During our testing, we asked parents about the educational toys that they had previously purchased for their daughters. Their most common response was that educational toys are more often marketed to boys. We think girls should have the same access.”
As the geeky dad of a 10-month-old daughter, I find this non-judgmental attitude refreshing. Brooks, Kessler, and Chen aren’t trying to turn girls into boys in order to get them interested in STEM subjects; Roominate is a toy designed to meet girls where they already are, using “common play patterns that we know girls love,” as the Kickstarter page states. “We loved our dolls, stuffed animals, and Barbies growing up,” Brooks tells Co.Design. “But, we also love our Legos, Lincoln Logs, Mastermind, and Chess. With Roominate, we are showing girls that they can like both. Everything is an option.”
Everything is an option: Isn’t that how any educational toy should make a kid feel, regardless of their gender? Roominate may be designed for girls first, but there’s nothing about it that couldn’t appeal to boys as well. What if a son and daughter played with Roominate and Lego Mindstorms together, mixing and matching them and sharing and creating, without any thought of “what belongs where” on the gender spectrum? If toys like Roominate can help make that kind of play experience more common, maybe in the future we won’t even need clunky acronyms like STEM anymore. To our kids, it’ll all just be creating, thinking, connecting, and making.