Women make up 60 percent of college graduates, yet only three in 10 decide to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering or math — also known as STEM subjects according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. These statistics are an issue that Mitzi Montoya, dean of ASU’s College of Technology and Innovation, is working to address.
“CTI (College of Technology and Innovation) believes that careers in STEM lead to innovations that will change the world, and we want women better represented in making the future,” Montoya said.
Two women who are up to Montoya’s challenge are Stanford graduates Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen, whom she has called “change agents.”
Armed with master degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, respectively, Brooks and Chen have an eye for innovation that Montoya aims to nourish in her students.
“By inviting Alice and Bettina, we’re instilling in our young women the ideas of thinking outside the proverbial box, solving real-world problems and doing it now at a young age,” Dean Montoya said.
Brooks and Chen grew up with an interest in engineering and pursued their degrees in a male-dominated area of study. They created their first project together — a do-it-yourself doll house building kit meant to spark an interest in STEM for young girls called Roominate.
“Most of this starts from a young age, because young boys are influenced to find enjoyment from toys like Legos that promote engineering and other STEM subjects, while girls aren’t as much,” Chen said. “We knew from experience that there was nothing out there for girls to play with that could get them interested in these areas, so we began to observe and prototype different options that could create that interest.”
Inspired by the toys they grew up with and that enabled them to build, as well as ideas of the like of author Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” and their dedication to elevate young girls’ playing experience rather than pandering to them, Brooks and Chen put significant time and effort into creating a product that set itself apart.
“We intentionally didn’t want to put bright pink on our packaging, because if you look at other toys for girls, pretty much everything is bright pink, and we didn’t think that was necessary,” Brooks said. “We wanted to go beyond their other toys, give them an experience that means a lot more, and also leave the door open for young boys who want to build, too.”
Roominate assortments vary from the Original Roominate, which includes wall and floor panels, modular building pieces, connectors, a motor-battery-switch circuit package and decorations, to the Chateau de Roominate that contains four times the materials. There are also engineer packs that either cater to the electrical side and contain a motor and light, or to the design side and have more modular pieces to build with — all of which inspire kids to build from their own ideas.
“This is something that encourages building and budding engineering, but in the context of something that they enjoy doing — which is really the ideal way to encourage people to seek a career in STEM,” Montoya said. “It has to be an intersection of passion, fun and learning at the same time.”
Brooks and Chen have asked parents to take photos of their children’s Roominate creations, and the results that have come in have blown the two entrepreneurs away. Different creations include a cotton candy maker that one young girl built with a motor, building pieces, and pink felt and another Roominate “doggy mansion” with multiple floors, rooms and puppy perks.
“It’s so important for kids to be exposed to STEM and see it as fun as soon as possible, because the longer they’re not exposed to it the scarier and less applicable it seems to their life,” Brooks said.
As for now, Brooks and Chen are working on expanding their Roominate products to include more exciting things and electrical components that tap into other aspects of STEM subjects. There are also plans to test a Roominate app in the near future, and to possibly expand to Japan if testing goes well.
For Brooks, her career started when, instead of the Barbie she asked for Christmas, Santa left a hand saw for her to build her own doll that ended up giving her the confidence to explore building and making things. For Chen, it was the hands-on toys she played with as a child that inspired her to create and venture into engineering. For both of them, it was the realization that they could make something better in the world that led them to inspire the same intrigue they were exposed to.
“I think women’s pursuit of STEM offers a really different perspective into the world, a perspective that could offer the world more,” Chen said.
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