Photo Courtesy of Goldieblox Inc.
GoldieBlox (above) makes learning about engineeringincluding how a belt drive worksfun for girls, says its Stanford U. engineering grad developer Debra Sterling.
Photo Courtesy of Goldieblox Inc.

Don't let the GoldieBlox story confuse you.

The toy isn't just about a ballerina music box—it's about ripping the box apart and putting it back together. It's about building a spinning machine to develop spatial skills.

But it's also about a female engineering grad from Stanford University who aims to make the engineering field more appealing to young girls. This goal led her to develop and nationally market GoldieBlox.

Debra Sterling, 30, didn't really know what engineers did until she went to Stanford. A graduate of the engineering school's much-touted product design program, she is now CEO of GoldieBlox Inc., the San Francisco Bay Area firm she founded in 2012 to develop the toy for 5- to 9-year-old girls.

"[GoldieBlox is what] I wished I had growing up," Sterling told broadcaster Katie Couric last year. The first shipments of about 22,000 toy sets will be sold mostly in independent toy stores by month's end.

Sterling is targeting this next generation by using stories and physical pieces to help them learn.

"My goal is to expose kids at a young age to engineering, particularly girls, with the hope it will change the stereotype that engineering is a boy's thing," says Sterling, a former brand strategy consultant. "I want to spark an interest in engineering to make it fun, accessible and relevant to kids."

The familiar-sounding GoldieBlox toy consists of a Sterling-written and -illustrated story about the central character, Goldie, that helps users learn critical thinking and building skills with the accompanying toy. The ballerina-music-box kit provides a peg board and toolbox to teach tension, force and friction.

Sterling's spinning machine toy, which allows Goldie to help her dog, Nacho, chase his tail, is an appealing introduction to what belt drives do, she says.

Sterling realized that girls tire quickly of boy-centered construction toys. Drop the instruction manual and cue up a story about a girl builder.

"Girls tend to develop verbal skills earlier and enjoy characters and narratives," she says. "As you read, you get to build along with Goldie."

Sterling says an early engineering-school lesson is that, "to learn how something works, you have to break it apart and put it back together. That is exactly what GoldieBlox does."

Working from her San Francisco apartment, Sterling used the crowd-funding web platform Kickstarter to gain $280,000 in pledges in about one month, nearly twice her goal.

Educators already have taken notice, with research studies and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula in schools embracing GoldieBlox.

Lynn Liben, a Pennsylvania State University human development prof, is doing a study on whether children's interest in the toy translates into greater interest in engineering. "It is an intriguing toy ... because the spatial and verbal qualities are so well integrated into the building activities," she says.

The study will analyze GoldieBlox play in the university's lab and in Seattle public-school classes. "It promises to be a toy that builds upon prior experience and increasingly complex materials," says Liben.

"GoldieBlox isn't a boy's toy guised in a pastel package," says Sandi Everlove, chief learning officer at Washington STEM, a non-profit advocacy group. "It's specifically built around what girls love: reading, adventure and saving the day."