Roominate, a Toy to Push Girls Towards STEM Fields

Last time you walked through Target and glanced at the toy aisles, did a wave of pink assault your eyes as you passed the “girls’” section?

Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen – both graduates of engineering master’s programs at Stanford who met in Rains – grew up playing with toys that didn’t fit neatly into the “girls’” aisle of princesses and pretty things, Brooks exploring in her father’s robotics lab and Chen building legos with her brother.

They were different and broke the stereo type people had for girls. A small girl should play with doll houses and a grown woman should prowl the internet for some Belleza Consejos. Somehow these girls were not into that and had different interests and never held back or changed their interests to fit the perfect  mould of a girl according to the society.

The two engineers – Brooks mechanical and Chen electrical – noticed diminishing numbers of women in their classes as they chose their majors and continued on to graduate education.

They credit their early experiences with generating interest in engineering as well as confidence, and have designed a toy they hope will introduce young girls to the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) before antiquated and gendered notions of academic pursuit and careers have a chance to take root.

While taking Steve Blank’s course “Technology Entrepreneurship and Lean Startups” (ENGR 245) focusing on business models, they tested their toy inkling – the first iteration was a car-type toy with a small motor that girls could design and decorate as an animal.

“[Girls] really like personalizing things and having a story,” says Brooks. But their first attempt at integrating circuits into play wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped, with girls focusing primarily on the crafts. “Using circuits and building really has to be a crucial part of the experience.”

The idea behind Blank’s class was to produce a minimal viable product and test experience. Following the course, they went through StartX. Brooks and Chen’s early and continued product testing has led to several redesigns, tweaks, and additions along the way. The process gave birth to Roominate, the first product to come out Maykah (Brooks’ and Chen’s company).

Roominate is a build-your-own “dollhouse” – it can actually be anything the user imagines: a restaurant, a business, etc. – that comes with walls, floor, modular parts to build furniture, circuits, and decorations.

The founders’ goal is to teach an introduction to circuits as well as problem solving and spatial skills through a kind of play that girls already enjoy, though they stress that Roominate is not only for girls, as its gender neutral packaging emphasizes.

“We thought that if we could create something that made experiences more accessible, it might encourage girls to become engineers down the line,” says Brooks. It’s crucial to build confidence and comfort with engineering concepts early on, while fostering creativity.

The kids come up with things Brooks and Chen had never imagined. “One girl,” Brooks says, “used a motor and some pink felt and made a cotton candy maker.” Maykah is now designing add-ons and expanded packages of Roominates to help ensure kids have the raw materials to let their imaginations run wild.

STEM for girls is a sexy topic, and Roominate’s kickstarter campaign – launched last May to raise funds for scaling its production – brought in 344% of its $25,000 goal (that’s about $86,000). The funding went toward manufacturing the first shipment of Roominates for all the backers, which arrived in time for Christmas (crucial timing in the toy market).

The founders of Maykah have gotten a great deal of positive feedback on their first product, though not uniformly. A Forbes writer followed up his initial coverage of Roominate after his kids tested out the toy, lamenting that the product hadn’t lived up to its promising campaign.

“In the end,” he said, “the kit was just like a traditional doll house craft project with a single fan and a $60 bill.” He conceded though the particular difficulties of starting a business that manufactures toys, and hopes “that they can think about this more and get back to the core promise that they initially showed.”

Brooks and Chen continue to collect feedback through testing and workshops as they work on improving and building on the original Roominate.