There are many toys that constantly bring us back to a nostalgic time in our childhood. From the dollhouse, to the action figure, to the board game all made us think intellectually about history or science and all of these toys peaked some sort of interest in our lives. Roominate is the Do It Yourself wired dollhouse building kit that was created to peak interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Roominate was created by Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks, both engineers who felt that creating Roominate would stimulate a young girls mind and intrigue them about science and math.
FKN sat down with Bettina Chen to find out what Roominate offers.
FK: What has been the response (if any) from male engineers, or boys who play with Legos when they see girls playing Roominate?
Male engineers love seeing a building toy designed for girls. We've had lots of dads excited to buy Roominate for their daughter. We had a customer comment about how it was a great way to spend quality time for dads and daughters.
For boys, we've had plenty of boys love playing with Roominate. As long as you don't tell them it's a girl’s toy, they'll just build away. At one of our museum workshops, we had a sibling pair where the boy was busy building for a good hour or two and his sister was just rolling around on the floor (she was a bit young though, probably around 4 years old). At another workshop, we had one boy who was just enthralled by the motor circuit that his mom was worried about trying to take it from him when they had to leave. It's just been really great to see how engrossed both girls and boys get when they play with Roominate.
We designed Roominate with girls in mind due to the lack of building toys marketed towards girls, but we were also very conscious of not making it in overly girly colors (the building pieces come in light blue and teal) since we knew there were parents who wanted to buy this sort of toy for their son.
FK: Has Roominate been introduced at the school level if not are there any plans to?
It's in the works :)
FK: Are you seeing a spark in interest in terms of engineering from females? (adults, school-aged girls)
What we're really trying to do is expose girls to STEM subjects at a young age to help build their confidence. So many boys have experience with circuits, for instance, that when it's brought up in the classroom, they're excited and run to the front and girls then become intimidated and back off. Both Alice and I played with unconventional toys growing up (unconventional for girls). Alice received a saw when she asked for a Barbie, so she built her own doll. I played with my brother's Lego and Lincoln Logs. These hands-on experiences helped build our confidence in the classroom that we weren't intimidated by boys, so we're trying to make these same experiences accessible to girls today. We are actually having some graduate students from the Stanford School of Education help do some studies on evaluating the benefits of playing with Roominate.
Another important thing we're trying to achieve with Roominate is to encourage hands-on creativity and exploration. We want kids asking ‘how do things work’ from playing with Roominate. We actually had this happen at a testing session. One of the girls overheard us talking to a parent about something and ran over asking, "Wait you made this toy?" And proceeded to ask us questions about how to make it. So we explained how we used laser cutters to make it (this is how we made our prototypes) and how laser cutters work. This then led to explaining how you can just send a laser cutter a picture, like you'd send to a printer, and it would cut it for you. So then we opened up a program on the laptop to show her how we drew a picture to send to the laser cutter. Then she wanted to know if you could draw things in 3D so we opened up a CAD program and she had fun drawing a simple 3D box with a cylinder coming out of it. It was just so cool to see how her curiosity was piqued.
Roominate also helps girls develop problem solving skills, which are important skills to develop for engineering. We had one parent email us about how her daughter wanted to add a disco ball to her Roominate and figured out that she needed to brace it to the back since the ball had too much weight.
FK: Was it challenging getting your idea of Roominate out in the forefront?
I think we actually got pretty lucky by getting a decent amount of press about Roominate. We launched Roominate on Kickstarter a few days before we brought it to Maker Faire Bay Area (which we'll be at again this year!). We got a couple initial articles through that and things basically waterfalled from there. We'd receive emails from people wanting to write about us from seeing a press article about Roominate. We've been written about in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and more. But right now, we're still trying to figure out how to reach as many people as possible. We've made this product that people love so we really just want to get it out in front of as many people as possible! We want to make the experiences we had as kids that encouraged us to pursue STEM to be accessible to all girls.
FK: The toy pieces seem cool enough for adults to use or to create - even perhaps for models-have you caught adults playing with your product?
Yep! Plenty of times. Actually one of the best parts of work is when we're developing some new ideas and get to play with our product. We had fun making a water park recently.
There's actually a funny story about adults playing with Roominate. We were in a startup accelerator last year called StartX (Stanford Student Startup Accelerator) where we shared space with a lot of other startups. One evening, some of the guys in the office came over and asked if they could play with Roominate (they were in their 20s). In the middle of their building, we tried to peek at what they were building, but they shooed us away. An hr or so later, they had built a small hockey rink with a basketball hoop that had our Strawberry Shortcake doll dunking into and were saying, "Your toy is so fun!" And what they built doesn't even compare to the things little girls can build. You can see some pictures here. It is so exciting to see how proud all the girls are of what they've built with Roominate!
FK: Where do you see Roominate in let's say five years?
We plan to build out the Roominate line as much as we can. We want to create a whole world around Roominate!
For more information about Roominate please visit: http://www.roominatetoy.com