Toys That Inspire

By Stephanie Hein

 

The gender gap in the field of engineering is no secret. But just how large is it? According to the National Science Foundation, women represent a mere 13% of the engineering workforce. The field also has a shockingly low retention rate for female engineers, leading to recent efforts to emphasize STEM in K-12 settings.

Across the K-12 grades, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) math and science scores do not differ drastically between boys and girls. In addition, a study by the Girl Scouts of America found that a majority of girls are interested in STEM subjects and their associated skills. So with similar test scores and high interest levels, why does the gender gap in engineering still persist? The short answer: STEM subjects and activities are oftentimes not designed to engage girls in meaningful and relatable ways, leaving them feeling alienated and discouraged.

Toys might not be the first solution that comes to mind to engage girls in engineering, however, there are a variety of toys on the market (often created by female engineers!) that are designed to do just that. Check out a few of my favorites below.

Blink Blink Paper Circuits

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Created by aerospace engineer Nicole Messier and designer Alex Tosti, Blink Blink kits add an engineering element to traditional arts and crafts projects. The Paper Circuit Kit comes with origami paper, LED lights, copper tape, and instructions to guide budding engineers through the project, with additional project ideas available on the Blink Blink website. In addition to the Paper Circuit Kit, the Wearable Tech Kits allow sewable circuits to be added to a variety of fashion items such as scarves, hats, and bags.

 

Build & Imagine

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Build & Imagine Founder Laurie Peterson noticed a lack of building toys for girls, so she created Build & Imagine kits, which are a combination of building blocks, dollhouses and dress-up. Each kit comes with wooden magnetic building panels and wooden dolls, which connect to form 3D storyboards reminiscent of dollhouses. The kits emphasize engineering skills such as spatial reasoning and problem solving while also encouraging creativity.

 

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

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In The Most Magnificent Thing, Ashley Spires delivers a story of a young inventor who sets out to make the most magnificent thing but as she builds she keeps trying and failing to create her perfect invention. Sprinkled with engineering-related vocabulary, this book conveys the importance of perseverance, creativity, and the ability to learn from mistakes, dispositions that are essential for any young engineer to learn.

 

A Reflection on the Annual MakerGirl Chicago Trip

"Hmm… We should make the height smaller."

"Let's put it to the left a little. Here, I'll help you click the arrow to increase the size."

Hard at work, Mairin, a young girl I was helping to 3D design armadillo nahual, her Mayan spirit animal, was engaged with the project, making me even more determined to help her-- we were going to do it together, one step at a time. Zoom one hour later-- we succeeded in designing her armadillo, and even more exciting, Mairin told her Dad she even said she wanted a 3D printer for the holidays!

This was three weeks ago, when the non-profit, MakerGirl, had its annual Chicago team bonding trip, in which we traveled from Champaign to Chicago to launch our first session of the school year at LinkedIn. At Chicago, we planned to go to different professional development opportunities, including touring MHub and LinkedIn. For me, I was most excited to meet the cofounders of MakerGirl, Julia and Lizzy.

Our first stop was at LinkedIn, where we met up with Lizzy to set-up our LinkedIn 3D printing session. As we toured around the company, it was amazing finding out that so many at LinkedIn supports MakerGirl, as Lizzy introduced us, each employees' face brightened, realizing we were part of the MakerGirl team. Then, during the 3D printing session, we collaborated with Hispanics of LinkedIn Alliance (HOLA), which strives to have a thriving, supportive environment for Hispanics. This month was Hispanic Month, so the 3D printing session theme was printing nahauls, Mayan spirit animals. Seeing the LinkedIn employees glow with excitement as they experimented with designing their own 3D printed objects and the diversity the LinkedIn environment supports was wonderful-- I felt like I was making a difference in showing the creative potential through STEM.

Next, we went to MHub, a new Chicago non-profit start-up with forefront technology labs accessible to entrepreneurs who are working towards starting their own start-ups, from credit card companies to artistic pursuits. The 3D printing lab was especially impressive, with very precise stereolithography and dozens of smaller 3D printers. It was wonderful to see another non-profit want to provide access to tools to help people pursue what they want to do: the sole goal that MakerGirl has for young girls to pursue STEM.

After the tour, we then went to Julia's to eat a team dinner, where we discussed our individual hobbies, interests, and goals. I learned so much about my teammates during this; I didn't realize how diverse each of our goals and interests are. Mary's pursuit for cosmetic chemistry, Charlotte also wanting to get into renewable energy, Shachi's Girls Who Code leadership, and Kim's involvement with consulting, were all different and interesting. It made me realize what diversity means in a team-- that we all come from different interests and backgrounds, but we also have the sole goal to directly contribute to helping girls like us pursue and explore STEM.

The next day, we continued our team bonding trip with exciting rock climbing at the Brookyln Boulders, where we cheered each other on as we climbed 50 feet walls and bouldered. Then, the most exciting part-- we went on a three hour food tour around Chicago! We learned about the different histories of local restaurants, from Jay's Beef to Mindy's Hot Chocolate, we had lots of food and had fun getting to know each other while enjoying the great weather. The falafel was my personal favorite, but I also loved Stan's donuts and Mindy's rich and soothing hot chocolate.

Overall, this trip was very valuable to me because I got to know my MakerGirl teammates on a more personal level, which made us closer and collaborate even more. I'm especially grateful for Lizzy and Julia for hosting us! I can't wait for the next MakerGirl Chicago trip, and I'm even more excited to work with my teammates to continue developing our own MakerGirl spirits as well as inspire more girls, like Mairin, to pursue STEM, as we continue to expand to Chicago! Let's all continue to inspire more #MakerGirls and #ChangeMakers!

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Rachel T

(Second from left)

MakerGirl - Creating Confidence in the Next Generation of Engineers

I started working for MakerGirl a nonprofit organization based in Champaign, Illinois, this year as a senior majoring in Industrial Engineering at the University of Illinois. MakerGirl’s vision is to inspire young girls to pursue careers in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). The organization hosts workshops that teach girls ages 7-10 about various topics, basic modeling software, and 3D printing technology.

The participants are given a prompt - one of my favorites is "Design a tool that would be helpful if you were in outer space." They then brainstorm their invention on paper and model it through simple CAD software we teach them to use. Finally, they learn how 3D printers work, and they print out their invention to take home with them.

 

 

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These sessions are held on campus at the University of Illinois, local libraries, elementary schools, and various community events. MakerGirl has the ability and supplies to operate sessions anywhere that has an Internet connection and electrical outlets. This broadens our impact as we can travel to many different places, regions, and states- like we have been doing the past two summers on our MakerGirl Goes Mobile Road Trips. 

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The most rewarding part is seeing how each girl’s interest in STEAM increases throughout the duration of a workshop. It not only inspires them, but it also inspires me. It gives me hope that girls will not shy away from entering these fields and that one day, they will play a role in shaping the future.

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As a rising junior, last summer I had the opportunity to work for the United States Postal Service as a Network Operations Engineering Intern at their Engineering Headquarters in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Two weeks in, I attended a departmental staff meeting with roughly twenty other engineers. I looked around at the other interns, to whom I had not had the chance to speak yet. I took note that there were only two other women. I don’t cross paths much with these two women due to the nature of our work, but I like to think I share something in common with them - an odd feeling of isolation. Most days I would go without speaking to another female engineer - not because I don’t want to, but because there just aren’t very many.

 

My hope is that this experience will soon be abnormal for female engineers - that through programs like MakerGirl, young women designers and builders will walk into rooms of their peers and see an equal number of men and women. I'm working toward that future, and hope the next generation will too!

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Rachel Berg

How we inspired 1200 7-10 year old girls in 53 cities to pursue STEM: the “Just Do It” mentality

Elizabeth Engele

What bothers you?

This was the big question posed in my “for fun” social entrepreneurship class that I had taken in one of my last semesters of university.  In Noah Isserman and Ryan Singh’sclass, students from business, social work, engineering, and more were challenged to create a social venture for the problem that bothered us.  I immediately thought about several of my female peers--on a campus that I had fought so badly to be a part of, I was frustrated listening to the non-opportunistic conversations that I found myself engaging in.  On a campus that offered the ability to do absolutely ANYTHING, I wanted to feel inspired and challenged; however, I found myself not feeling that way a majority of times.  I wanted girls to feel like they could “make” absolutely anything they wanted out of their passions and skills to drive opportunities.   From this frustration and a little research on how a STEM education encourages a “maker” mindset, MakerGirl was born.

 

Through themed 3D printing sessions offered to 7-10 year old girls, MakerGirl shows girls that being creative and analytical are not mutually exclusive and that any passion (fashion, sports, etc.) can be combined with STEM to create solutions.  In a short 1.5 years, MakerGirl has gone from a pilot session in which 3 co-founders could barely do 3D prints on our own (due to a lack of previous practice) to a team of ~20 Change Makers inspiring 1200 girls across the nation to pursue STEM.  

 

The main driver for these accolades is the mentality that got us started:  just go for it.

 

In November of 2014, before our first session, the original co-founders and I were spending way too much time planning out every short-term and long-term aspect of MakerGirl (revenue, logistics, marketing, etc.) until Professor Isserman came to our desks and said, “Why don’t you just try a session?  That is the only way you will know if this is a valuable idea.”

 

Our first session was a trainwreck--there were 3 business majors trying to teach young girls how to use 3D printers when we were novices.  Not to mention, about 7 of the 10 printers were broken, and we couldn’t even complete the 10 minute prints for the girls to go home in time. . . but that was step 1.   We would not have known what we needed to learn without just going for the first session, even if it was chaotic.

 

The next semester, our demand grew to 6 sessions, and we gained new team members who were collegiate STEM leaders who embodied the MakerGirl core values (see below).  The next Summer, we were accepted into UIUC’s iVenture Accelerator to work on MakerGirl full-time for the summer.  We continued to gain more valuable Change Makers (team members) and connections which enabled us to inspire more MakerGirls.  All of this growth led us to thinking and dreaming bigger.

 

Thinking back to my childhood, while growing up in a small town, I did not have as many creative learning opportunities like MakerGirl so one of my goals was to bring the sessions to girls like myself.  This thought was one of the drivers #MakerGirlGoesMobile, a dream that we had to take the 3D printing sessions across the country to a diversity of girls.

 

Again, we had no idea how we would raise over $50K to do the project or how we would attract all the girls or how we would even receive truck insurance, but we just did it.  After reaching $15K of the $30K Kickstarter, I had no idea how we would raise the last half since all of our resources seemed to be tapped.  Even after the Kickstarter, we had significant questions unanswered like getting an RV versus a trailer, but again, we figured it out as time progressed.

 

Throughout the mobile project, we have had mayors proclaiming MakerGirl holidays and e-mails stating that we have changed girls’ lives, and none of that would have been possible without Noah nudging us to just go for attempting the first session.

 

“Just do it”--sounds like a simple concept, and it is, but it is the only step to get started on a big journey.  It is a simple concept, taught by some of the world’s leading innovators like leaders of Google X as well as my friend and professor, Noah Isserman. It is how some of the world’s leading products and services get built.  It is how habits can be broken and formed.


After all, the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single 3D print. 

 

 

 

#MakerGirlGoesMobile could not have been possible without the support of our Kickstarter donors as well as our sponsors and partners:  Avant, Abbott Laboratories, Workiva, Hyatt, Parker Hannifan, Illinois MakerLab, Ultimaker, Johnson Controls, and Preemadonna.  If you are interested in starting a MakerGirl academy in your town, please e-mail me at elizabeth@makergirl.us.