Spotlight TEDx Talk: Inspiring the next generation of female engineers

 Debbie Sterling at TEDxPSU  (Photo: Jennifer Nagel)

Debbie Sterling at TEDxPSU (Photo: Jennifer Nagel)

Today marks the first day of TEDWomen 2015 — and the nearly 250 TEDxWomen events watching the conference worldwide! To celebrate, we’re featuring talks that look at the state of women in the world today.

Only 11 percent of engineers in the U.S. workforce are women. Debbie Sterling is one of those women. For years, she says in a talk at TEDxPSU, she has gotten skeptical looks when she tells people she’s an engineer. “Usually when I tell people I’m an engineer,” she says, “they look at me and they say, ‘Ha! No, really, what do you do?’ or they look at me and say, ‘Oh, whoa, you must be some kind of genius.”

In her talk, Sterling explains why she thinks her profession shouldn’t be so surprising, and proposes how we might make engineering a more inviting field for young girls.

One way? Toys. “Kids who score better on spatial skills tests grew up playing with construction toys,” Sterling says. “Me and my little sister growing up, our parents never bought us Legos or erector sets or Lincoln logs. We all thought that those were boys’ toys.”

This rejection of construction toys merely because they were “for boys” concerned Sterling, so she went on a mission to create something new: a toy that introduces girls to engineering without making them feel alienated from their peers. She was determined: “‘I’m going to make an engineering toy for girls,” she says, “and I’m going to give them the opportunity that I didn’t have, so that they can discover a passion for engineering much earlier than I did.”

Sterling quit her job to create the perfect new engineering toy set. “I did all of this research,” she says. “I met with little girls, and I found something really interesting. I’d buy construction toys and watch them play with them to see how they could be improved, and time and time again, the girls would get bored with the toys. And so I would say, ‘Well, what is your favorite toy?’ and they would run upstairs and they would bring back down a book and they’d say, ‘I love reading. Let’s read together.’”
“So,” Sterling says, ” I came up with a really simple ‘aha’ idea: What if I put those two things together? Spatial plus verbal; a construction set plus stories.”

The result was GoldieBlox, an engineering set paired with stories — all led by a female engineer named Goldie.

For more, watch Sterling’s whole talk below:

Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:

The speaker addresses the idea in her talk — that engineering is an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, but it doesn’t have to be — through the story of a potential solution — a story-driven engineering toy set. The speaker uses research, personal experience and visuals to share how this toy could be useful in making engineering becoming a more socially normal career choice for women.

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