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July 24, 2014 AT 10:40 am

Interview: Toy-company founder and female engineer on girls in STEM #WomenInSTEM

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Machine design has published an excellent interview with Alice Brooks, co-founder of Maykah Inc., a toy company start up that tries cultivate interest in engineering through their products.

Ask any woman in a technical field to think back on what toys she liked best when she was a girl, and chances are at least one plaything had linkages, moving parts, or features with a technical slant. In fact, such toys can cultivate interest in engineering.

Now start-up company Maykah Inc., Mountain View, Calif., emphasizes technical functions to combine what a lot of traditional toymakers make for girls — story-based playthings that have a domesticating slant — with parts that let girls make their own mechanical and electrical toys for imagining their own narratives.

The idea is to engage girls’ natural inclination towards play that involves storytelling related to relationships, role playing, and communication (an inclination psychologists confirm in myriad studies) with technical activities. That way, girls can make things as a way to hone their spatial skills — the ability to mentally manipulate objects — which are fundamental to design and engineering work.

I recently chatted with Alice Brooks, M.S. mechanical engineering from Stanford and cofounder of Maykah Inc., about how she and her business partner Bettina Chen started their company to make the technical toys for girls. Here’s what she had to say.

Maykah’s flagship product is a parts set called Roominate, a room-themed toy. When the company was started, was this always going to take that form?

Brooks: When we started, our mission was to get more girls building and using circuits, and expose them to tools and toys they don’t usually get at home or in school. We didn’t even know what the toy was going to look like. We just knew we wanted to make some kind of building toy. So we observed girls playing with toys and some prototypes we made.

That was in 2011 and 2012, when you observed test groups of girls playing with your prototypes at local events and at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco. Did you observe anything surprising about how girls play that prompted you to change the toy design?

Brooks: We found that they engaged most in engineering circuits and building when it was an essential part of play — and we had to find the right context for that.

To illustrate, in one scrapped prototype, we had girls make a car and then design an animal to go on top of the car. The little pet then followed them around. The problem there was, the girls had to connect all the linkages and circuits to get to the “fun” part after. So the actual building and wiring of circuits weren’t part of the toy’s “fun” functions.

After more testing and iterations, we settled on a dollhouse that lets girls design spiral staircases, lighting, elevators, Lazy Susans, and more. Once we gave them that context, the girls got so excited about the building and wiring that they actually exceeded the task and used the toy beyond its domestic-home setting. To date, girls have used the toy set to build Golden Gate Bridges, fridges, car washes, airplanes, and many other things.

You met Bettina Chen, your business partner, at Stanford. What made you team up to found Roominate?

Brooks: I was a mechanical engineer from MIT and Chen was an electrical engineer from Caltech. We met as graduate students and were two of only a few women. We quickly became friends and discussed why we chose engineering for our careers, and why we stuck with it.

We realized that things we played with when we were younger had gotten us excited about building and tinkering and creating before we even knew what engineering was. For me, it was when I was eight: That year, I asked if Santa Claus could bring me a Barbie. Instead I got my own saw. So, I started making dolls, dollhouses, and animals out of wood and nails, and it was really fun — a creative, open-ended, hand-born process. Chen and I saw that as an uncommon experience for girls today.

So we started looking for ways to make girls handy at a young age. In fact, research shows that developing spatial skills is really important for opening doors later to STEM involvement. So, we decided we were going to make a toy … and we both love toys … so it was a natural decision there.

We started work on this about two and a half years ago — right as we were finishing up our master’s degrees.

Read the full interview here.


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