A world filled with robots powered by artificial intelligence will need skilled workers who can create, program and maintain tomorrow’s smart machines. That’s a whole generation of kids that needs to be minted into a scientifically-minded workforce. A couple of U.S. toymakers are doing just that.
LEGO Education and Roominate, distinctly different toymakers, are both teaching STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – through their toys. Girls, in particular, are often perceived as lacking an interest in science or are not given the chance to see the fun in it.
Enter Roominate, a company that creates wired building toy sets designed to get girls age six and up excited about STEM learning. Co-founder Bettina Chen said the kit helps show girls “how fun creative engineering and science” can be.
The kit incorporates building, circuitry, crafts, storytelling and programming, and exposes girls “to concepts that they don’t get in their other toys,” said Chen in an interview. That helps them “develop spatial skills that are important for STEM.”
Getting young girls interested in STEM activities can be challenging. An early prototype designed to encourage girls to build cars did not get much traction – until Roominate saw their dollhouses and decided to let them build their own, with furniture and all the circuitry and motors they might need.
“It was just a really great way to kind of introduce these concepts to girls in a way and in a space that they’re … comfortable in and that they’re familiar with,” said Chen.
Once the girls build a room, Chen said they find that they have to build a bed and a couch. “And then they’re like … I need to put in a fan, now I have to wire up this motor circuit.”
And yes – they also built a car. When the dollhouse was ready, the girls decided their doll needed a car.
“And suddenly all these other things that maybe originally they weren’t thinking about or were not interested in … make sense and become part of their story that they’re building,” she said.
When a subject like circuits is unfamiliar, girls tend to be less excited about it and inclined to think the material might not be for them. “And that’s a really big problem,” said Chen, and the reason why Roominate wanted to bring science concepts into its toys.
The toymaker is working with U.S. non-profit Tech Bridge to make its product available to more girls in underserved communities. Chen sees this as an opportunity to expose more girls to unfamiliar science subjects at an early age, while giving them the tools to unleash their creativity.
“It’s really important to get these girls when they’re younger … comfortable with these things,” she said. “When they do come up in school, they’re not afraid to tackle them.”
Another group – LEGO Education – is also pushing STEM education, not just for girls, with WeDo 2.0, a redesigned elementary robotics learning platform.
The idea is to “help children unlock their creative problem-solving and analytical thinking skills,” said Leshia Hoot, LEGO Education’s Senior Segment Manager in an interview.
“So for instance, in elementary school, we … help classrooms explore writing and English language art and math and mathematical problem-solving, and then STEM and science,” she said. “We then look specifically at the standards and the specific topics that schools are teaching, and our curriculum is all designed to support those topics.”
The platform, developed from the ground up with direct feedback from educators, is easy for elementary school teachers to learn and deploy in the classroom.
The first version of WeDo was released in 2009, but has since trailed new innovations in mobile and wireless technologies. The new, updated version was redesigned to let students build and program moving LEGO models.
“We’ve completely rewritten all of the curriculum to really focus on STEM and science,” said Hoot. “We’ve added a wireless Bluetooth connection so you can build … mobile models, so you can imagine something that can move around … And we’ve also made sure that we can support the devices that are used in a lot of schools today.”
Older devices are still in use in many schools, particularly in developing parts of the world in Asia and Africa, where LEGO Education also operates.
The redesign exposes kids to a wide variety of topics, including Earth science, physical science, life science and engineering.
And so the idea is that you would explore one of those topics and then build a LEGO model and use a very graphical, colorful programming language to bring that model to life and explore the topic at hand.
Hoot stressed that in the future, almost every career in any part of the world will require some STEM skills and a basic understanding of science.
“We really feel that elementary and primary school students are at a point when they’re so curious and engaged in learning about the world around them,” she said. “And so it’s an opportunity to help them gain some of those really foundational STEM and science skills that will be important no matter what career they go into.”