Plenty of companies are trying to figure out how to use toys and games to get more girls interested in building, wiring, and programming, in hopes that engaging children early will increase the number of women going into STEM-- science, technology, engineering, and math—careers. And established companies are willing to admit that, try as they might (pink Legos, for example), none have them have found the secret sauce.
So there's definitely room for innovation here. And Maykah Inc. (try saying it out loud), demonstrating at Stanford’s StartX Demo Day last week, is determined to be the innovator that comes up with the perfect STEM-inspiring toy. Started by three Stanford current or former graduate students—Alice Brooks, Bettina Chen, and Jennifer Kessler—Maykah put its first product, Roominate, up on Kickstarter two weeks ago, and already has over $60,000 in orders.
Roominate, aimed at girls 5 through 10 years old or so, is a dollhouse kit, with wooden parts for floors, walls, and furniture, wallpaper and other accessories for decorating a room once it is built, looking like just a few more accessories, a battery pack and wires for a simple circuit that controls a light, a fan, or a buzzer. Changing the wiring of the little dollhouse seems as simple as changing the wallpaper. (In early tests, the company founders report, the fan was a big hit; who knew that every dollhouse needed a working fan?)
A basic kit currently sells in preorder on Kickstarter for $59. That’s enough gear to build one room and some furniture. Rooms hook together, so either one child can collect multiple kits to build a sprawling ranch house or mini-mansion, or children can get together with friends and connect their rooms together for a few hours, rewiring as they go. The company expects to start shipping in November.
I think the concept, the execution, and Maykah’s young founders are all great (check out the Kickstarter video below). I did find myself a bit baffled when another journalist asked whether the company is planning to offer social sharing online (yes, it will have a web site with some kind of interaction) or perhaps an app that lets users design virtual rooms, taking the whole thing off the dining room table into cyberspace (it isn’t, at least at this point). These questions made me cringe—I think the cool thing about Roominate is that it’s so tactile and real world, and it just clamors for kids to get together around a table and pull apart rooms and furniture and rebuild, rewire, and redecorate them. To me, it just doesn’t belong in a virtual world (particularly for 5 year olds).
Anyway, my hat’s off to Maykah for getting their heads out of the cloud; can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
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Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.