"Princess Machine": Encouraging Girls in STEM with a Rube Goldberg Contraption Music Video

Update on 27 November: After a controversy with the Beastie Boys over the use of the band's music in what is essentially an advertisement, Goldieblox yesterday took down the original video, which had gotten more than 8 million views. The company posted a replacement video yesterday, with a different musical track. That video now appears in the post below. The lyrics displayed at the bottom of this post refer to the original, no-longer-available video.

Start-up toy company GoldieBlox believes “there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet.”

GoldieBlox makes engineering construction kits for girls ages 4 to 9. These aren’t just pink versions of Lego sets; instead, they include books that put the engineering projects in the context of a story. The idea is that the girls using these toys are building gizmos to help characters they care about. (The toy-plus-story model works; witness the success of toy company American Girl.) Founder Deborah Sterling majored in mechanical engineering at Stanford. Her first toy in the series, Goldie Blox and the Spinning Machine, came out this spring after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

This week, GoldieBlox showed it not only knows how to make toys, it knows how to make viral videos. The company took the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls,” changed the lyrics more than a little, and brought in an 8-year-old female rapper to sing it, along with two other young girls to perform in the video:

A team of adults led by 39-year-old Brett Doar created a Rube Goldberg contraption, the “Princess Machine” out of toys; it took about two and a half weeks to build, reported Doar, who has a masters degree in arts, computation, and engineering from the University of California at Irvine. Doar previously worked on the Rube Goldberg machine created for the pop group OK Go, alongside Brent Bushnell, profiled in IEEE Spectrum’s 2012 article, Rube Goldberg 2.0. But the Princess Machine was a project that was as much a labor of passion as it was an engineering job for Doar.

“I used to be a teacher,” he told me, recalling that he too often watched girls being turned away from engineering. “I remember one student who was interested in building stuff, and had built this one little thing she brought in that she was excited about, and I remember thinking I hope she doesn’t get that beaten out of her by peer pressure. Because I’ve seen that happen in a school environment, with a young woman who enters middle school with a strong interest in science and math, faces pressure to do cheerleader stuff, and two years later she’s been transformed, and isn’t interested in science anymore. It breaks my heart.”

For Doar, the message of the video is that “you can look at the things around you that are banal and mundane, the things you take for granted, and you can do interesting things with them. You’re surrounded by stuff you can do things with, and that stuff doesn’t have to have just one function.” Hopefully, he says, girls watching the video will be empowered to build things and pursue engineering, not (though it admittedly is a risk) to “tear their houses apart.”

His favorite part of the video is where a toy car swings and destroys a toy kitchen set. “I wanted to use a Barbie Dreamhouse,” he says, for the Dreamhouse particularly frustrates him. “There is only one way to play with that toy. It doesn’t even have furniture you can move around like a regular dollhouse. It’s extremely limited.” He used the kitchen instead for two reasons--concern over licensing issues and the fact that plastic doesn't break apart with nearly the drama something made of wood (and certainly can't be put back together as easily for multiple runs.)

GoldieBlox has entered the video that brings together the machine and the song into a contest for Super Bowl ad time.

Will the video (to quote the song in it), inspire “Girls to build the spaceship,
Girls to code the new app, Girls to grow up knowing they can engineer that?” With well over a million YouTube hits in its first two days, it’s definitely on the right track.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry.

The rewritten “Girls” lyrics:

Girls.
You think you know what we want, girls.
Pink and pretty it's girls.
Just like the 50's it's girls.

You like to buy us pink toys
and everything else is for boys
and you can always get us dolls
and we'll grow up like them... false.

It's time to change.
We deserve to see a range.
'Cause all our toys look just the same
and we would like to use our brains.

We are all more than princess maids.

Girls to build the spaceship,
Girls to code the new app,
Girls to grow up knowing
they can engineer that.

Girls.
That's all we really need is Girls.
To bring us up to speed it's Girls.
Our opportunity is Girls.
Don't underestimate Girls.

Photo, Video: GoldieBlox

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