Three years after raising US$85,964 on Kickstarter to fund their girl-focused, wired building toy, Roominate co-founders Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks are once again looking for that spark. The duo has crowdsourced more than enough cash (US$50,024, to be exact) to get its second product to market—a newer version of Roominate featuring rPower.
Used as an update to Roominate, rPower is a new physical component that lets kids control multiple circuits from the same power source (the purple device pictured). Additionally, when kids snap together the wired modular plastic pieces to build things like dollhouses or windmills, they can open up the new Roominate app on their smart devices to control motor speed, change directions and turn lights on/off or set them to blink. (The free app is available for all iOS and Android devices). An added bonus: rPower and the new wired pieces are compatible with the existing version of Roominate on the market.
“We’re really seeing that kids are getting involved in the digital space, so it’s a good area for us to introduce some new learning concepts,” Chen says, adding that the goal is to put more features into the app, such as adventures, design challenges and other engaging content.
Roominate’s tech update, Chen continues, complements the product’s existing core physical play aspect, which teaches kids about spatial and hands-on problem-solving skills, self-confidence, creativity and basic circuitry.
“When they turn it on and the motor spins for the first time, it’s such a magical moment for them to see they’ve actually created something that moves,” she says. “rPower is not taking away from the physical play, but rather really adding to it and making it more exciting.”
For Karen Horting, executive director and CEO for the Chicago, Illinois-based Society of Women Engineers, the emergence of girl-skewing STEM (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) toys like Roominate and Goldie Blox could help move the needle even more so, and they can encourage young girls to pursue jobs in these traditionally male-dominated fields. Currently in the US, less than 15% of women in post-secondary education major in STEM subjects.
Horting says research shows that young girls are just as proficient in these subject areas, but once they reach middle school, gender stereotypes unfortunately start to get reinforced by both students and adults. What she particularly likes about Roominate, though, is the classroom version that encourages teamwork.
“Seeing that it’s not just the girls that they’re reaching out to – but also the educators – is really key to reinforcing the positive messages and self-confidence they get from having success as young girls,” Horting explains. “Then, I think it could help propel them when they get to high school and start thinking about college options.”
In her research on the subject, Sheila Boyington, an advocate for girls STEM education and president/co-founder of Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Thinking Media, says 90% of girls make their career decisions in seventh or eighth grade, and the number one reason so many shy away from STEM careers is lack of exposure. Boyington’s company designed the educational tool Learning Blade, which has been picked up by educators in 20 US states since it launched less than two years ago, as a way to expose kids to STEM-related careers.
“These types of systems, like Roominate and Goldie Bloks, are great for exposing girls to these opportunities at a young age and engaging them in a space they’re used to—toys,” says Boyington, who holds a master’s degree in civil/environmental engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s so important that we start as early as we possibly can.”
Roominate’s co-founders certainly plan on exposing and inspiring more young girls around the world to pick up STEM toys. For starters, a range of new Roominate kits (US$19.99 to US$49.99) for kids six and older hit retail in the US, Canada and Australia this fall. Talks are also in the works to bring Roominate to European and Asian markets this year.
In addition to expanding its global reach, the Santa Clara, California company promises to continuously add innovation into Roominate. Eventually, they’d like to incorporate programming, too.
“We really see STEM as the area where a lot of cool innovation is happening, and products being made are really helping our world—improving it and pushing it forward,” Chen contends. “To see that in the US only 11% of engineers are female, we’re missing out on a lot of innovation that could be happening by bringing in their perspectives.”