June 10, 2015
Before Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen founded Roominate, they met at Stanford. During their Master’s education in engineering they noticed that only about 17 percent of their mechanical engineering class was female. When it came to the electrical engineering classes, the number of females affiliated with the program was far lower than that.
“We think having a female presence in STEM fields is important for all innovation that’s happening, and it didn’t make sense that girls weren’t involved in it,” says Chen.
It prompted them to ask why there weren’t as many women in engineering. That, in turn, led them to consider what had personally inspired them to become engineers.
As a child, Chen would play with her brother’s toys – LEGOs, Lincoln Logs, and the like. When she looked back on this experience as a graduate student she had a total ‘aha’ moment: she saw how the toys she played with as a child made her want to become and engineer.
That is, she knew that she enjoyed making products, but more importantly she knew she could do it. The problem, as she elaborates, is that girls aren’t offered the same opportunities in this regard as boys are. Brooks and Chen knew there was a definite market need for a toy to help get past this problem, but they needed to figure out exactly what the missing piece was.
So, they began testing prototype toys with a lot of kids, going into homes and trying out different ideas. Some of them didn’t work out well, but there was one prototype that stuck with the kids as much as it did with the entrepreneurial duo. This was the beginning of Roominate.
“We’d go into these homes and see what toys girls have in their homes,” says Chen. “Most of them had doll houses in their rooms and we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we gave people the ability to build their own dollhouse and build in circuits? That’s something that young girls never do.”
They also talked with a lot of teachers, in specific one who was teaching the fourth grade class about circuits. The boys generally liked it, but the girls weren’t into it. According Chen, it’s because these young girls hadn’t been expose to those things in toys before and were thus disinterested.
“We’re paving the way, bringing STEM to girls at a young age. We want to get them exposed early on so they can understand they can be anything they want when they grow up,” says Chen.
The unique blend of building, circuits, design, crafts, storytelling, and creativity they’ve woven into the fabric of Roominate toys teaches kids STEM skills as they play. These kids are getting the opportunity to assemble light circuits, motorized elevators, and modular furniture building pieces.
So far Brooks and Chen have been incredibly successful teaching hands on problem solving, spatial and fine motor skills, self-confidence, and creativity. You see, Roominate toys go very far beyond just teaching STEM skills. The important thing, as they keep moving forward, is to give kids the opportunity to play with something technical, creative, and open minded.
“We show them the basic topography and let them take it from there. They’re building beyond anything we ever imagined,” says Chen.
As they continue to grow, Chen and Brooks plan on rolling out plenty of new features for Roominate. Specifically they’re working on a Kickstarter campaign that integrates control features for the circuit components in the toys from a tablet or smartphone. We’ll make sure to keep you updated.
Image Credit: Roominate Facebook page
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