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  • Bettina Chen (BS ’10) with the Roominate Chateau
    Credit: Caltech Alumni Association
  • Monica (BS '95) and Charles Sharman (BS ’95) with models built using Crossbeams
    Credit: Glenn Asakawa
12/03/2015 16:39:29

Rethinking the Building Block

Sydney Fish, age 9, takes a break from the morning session at her summer camp to build a toy house. Using an arrangement of brightly colored pieces, she assembles the living room: chairs, a table, and a tiny sofa. Then, she does something more—she wires a portion with electricity.

"I just made a fan," Sydney says, flipping a switch. A small, battery-powered propeller spins to life, which Sydney makes sure to explain. "I took this circuit and connected it to the motor. Then these two wires are connected to the battery."

This isn't your typical doll house. Sydney is playing with Roominate Chateau, a building toy marketed primarily to girls, designed to foster an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM skills. The San Francisco-based company was founded by Bettina Chen (BS '10) and Alice Brooks, who bonded while in graduate school together at Stanford. "We were among a handful of women with engineering degrees," Chen recalls. "We thought, 'Why aren't there more women like us? And what can we do to change that?'" Chen traced her own interest in science to the toys she used as a child: building toys like Lego blocks and Tinkertoys.

Building sets have been used for centuries to drive curiosity and teach spatial relationships. Today, they're also big business. According to the Toy Industry Association, in 2014 the segment made up 10 percent of the overall toy market and generated $1.85 billion in sales. That's a lot of blocks. Yet most are explicitly marketed to boys. Of the nearly 2,000 building sets on the Toys R Us website, nearly all—92 percent—are labeled as appropriate or intended for boys, while only 56 percent are similarly categorized for girls. 

"There's a big gender gap," Chen says. "Most traditional 'girls toys' don't offer play that develops spatial and problem-solving skills, which research has shown lead to greater interest in STEM fields," she says. Indeed, one study, published in 2001 in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education, found that kids who played with building sets scored higher on standardized math tests.

Chen and Brooks designed Roominate to address that.

Read the full story on the Caltech Alumni Association's website.

Written by Lorinda Dajose