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Can better toys turn girls into engineers?

Lia Grainger
Shine On
November 26, 2012

Only one in 10 engineers in Canada are women.

Why? It's not a new question — experts have been examining numerous possible explanations for years, ranging from nature-to-nurture to neuroplasticity.

Now, one female engineer from Stanford University has come up with her own solution to the gender gap in her field — and it's a game called GoldieBlox.

Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling decided to investigate whether the fact that boys tend to play with Lego, Kinex and Erector sets and girls with dolls, princess dresses an storybooks might have anything to do with the fact that only nine to 10 per cent of engineers are female.

Her theory is that while boys toys facilitate learning spacial reasoning skills that are so important in the engineering field, girls toys and games tend to focus more on human relations, emotions and stories.

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With this in mind, Sterling decided to design a building-focused toy set specifically for girls.

She recently appeared on the George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight to talk about how her game GoldiBlox, which centres around the narrative of a girl inventor who loves to build.  Sterling created a page for the toy on the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter with the goal of collecting $150,000, and has collected more than $280,000 from more than 5,500 backers.

"My big 'aha'? Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much," writes Sterling on her Kickstarter page. "Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters. GoldieBlox is the best of both worlds: reading + building."

Clearly Sterling's idea has struck a chord, and there's a mounting body of evidence to suggest that she's right in her belief that the way we are raised plays a role in out ability to perform the spacial reasoning tasks so vital in engineering.

A series of experiments way back in the '90s, demonstrated that when female subjects were told to simply "solve the problems on the test" -- rather than specifying they use their various spatial-skills abilities -- the women would perform as well as the men. It suggests that women believe they don't have spacial reasoning skills, and the belief is self-fulfilling.

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"We simply don't know if we are raising girls to be a certain way or if they naturally might have that orientation," says Joan Peskin, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in early development and education.

Peskin says that though there is evidence and evolutionary theory to support the idea that men and women are predisposed to certain tasks, there is also evidence that any gaps in naturally ability can be compensated with training.

She says that many gaps between the genders, in areas like math and language, have gradually closed until they are now practically non-existent, but that spacial reasoning is one area where men still significantly outperform women.

"It would be beneficial for girls to improve spacial reasoning," says Peskin. "Whatever the cause of this gap, research on neuroplasticity shows these differences can be reduced or even eliminated with training."

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So how can parents help their daughters train their brains? One place to start is GoldieBlox, but Sterling's game isn't the only solution.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and one of the most high profile females in a Silicone Valley scene dominated by men. Her suggestion?

"Let your daughters play video games," Sandberg tells journalist Dana Goldstein.

Though this might seem counterintuitive, Canadian research shows that playing video games helps girls catch up when it comes to spacial skills.

Scientists at the University of Toronto found that when women played an action video game for just a few hours, their spacial skills improved so much that they were able to catch up to the men who initially scored significantly better.

"One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering," says lead research Ian Spence.

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So how do we get more "boy toys" like building blocks and video games in the hands of girls?

Well, at least one progressive toy company is taking it upon themselves to solve that problem by going gender neutral.

Top Toy is the Swedish distributor for U.S. chain Toys R Us, and this year, decided to reverse the gender of many of the models in their Christmas catalogue. They feature a boy holding a doll and a girl holding a toy machine gun.

"With the new gender thinking, there is nothing that is right or wrong. It's not a boy or a girl thing, it's a toy for children," Jan Nyberg, director of sales, tells the Herald Sun.

Whatever the reason for gender disparities in engineering skills, toys like GoldieBlox and toy retailers like Sweden's Top Toy are helping ensure that girls will have the same opportunities as boys to develop and learn while it's all still fun and games.

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