Alice Brooks started out as a toy maker early in life, but had no idea that was the career path she’d eventually follow. Years after her making her first toy in her father’s basement, while working toward an engineering graduate student at Stanford, Brooks and classmate Bettina Chen were part of a small cohort of women in the program. Because of this dynamic, they became fast friends and realized that one of the factors that led them both into studying engineering were the toys each had played with as young girls.
The influence of those toys, and the subsequent experiences in playing with them, was so strong for both women that Brooks and Chen decided to develop a STEM-focused toy specifically geared toward girls. Their hope was that their toy would motivate the next generation of girls to become more interested in STEM.
It worked. Their invention, Roominate, a kit that allows girls to design and create different structures with colorful, interchangeable components, and then power those designs with battery-powered electric motors, has taken the world by storm and built a community of loyal female fans over the past few years.
DADSCI had a chance to talk to Brooks to find out more about the woman behind the phenomenon.
DADULAR SCIENCE: What was it that first got you interested in engineering?
I had a lot of influences. When I was eight years old, I asked my dad if Santa could bring me a Barbie doll for Christmas. He said “no,” and instead Santa brought me a saw. So I made my own doll in the basement with the saw and some two-by-fours.
Who had the biggest impact on you going into engineering?
Both of my parents, actually. My mom was a math teacher, and used to say “If you don’t have it, don’t buy it. Make it.” She also taught me to sew. My dad was a roboticist, and I used to go hang out in his robot lab when I was younger. I thought it was normal; I didn’t know it was abnormal for girls to be hanging out in robot labs and working with their dads.
How did Roominate come about specifically, say, versus other designs?
Roominate came from lots of interest. My co-founder and I met in school and we knew we wanted to design toys, but we didn’t know what that looked like, so we visited a lot of homes and asked kids what they wanted in a toy. We also spent a lot of time watching them play.
Our first idea was a car, so we made a prototype and watched girls with that. The response was just okay, so we decided to girl it up a bit. The response was a little better, so we turned the car into a pig with a motor. That idea wasn’t working so we scrapped it.
We noticed that a lot of the girls we were watching had doll houses, so we thought we’d turn them into something else, and used a hobby motor to turn a fan. The first prototype was from foam core, and we saw they had fun with that. They liked the customization, so we iterated from there, making it [the house] modular. I used scrap wood and acrylic for the prototypes, and changed the shapes through iteration. After we got it to the stage they liked, we launched it on Kickstarter. We hit our goal on the fifth day, and this let us know we were onto something big.
That being said, would it be safe to assume that Roominate has been more successful than you’d originally hoped?
Yes, it was definitely more successful. It just resonated with parents, and kids love what we’re doing.
What’s next for Roominate?
We were acquired by PlayMonster in December , so that’s really opened up a lot of resources and a lot of new possibilities. We have a lot of new stuff in production, spin-offs that really expand the Roominate world.
If you had one thing you can say, or have advice for the next generation of female STEM professionals, the next engineers who might be inspired by you and what you’ve done, what would that be?
Find what you love about it and stick with it. I’m really happy I got into engineering.
A note from Roominate: As far as the new products, we are excited to offer some improvements to the genius idea of Roominate. Those improvements include more powerful motors, new building pieces (some will add additional structural support and some will add more customized fun to each set, such as a carousel and horses for the carnival) and improved dolls with bendable legs and knees, and moveable heads. Overall there are six new building kits ranging in price from $11.99-57.99. The kits will be available at Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, your favorite local toy store and PlayMonster.com.
While plopping down in front of a screen for any length of time goes against pretty much everything DADSCI stands for, I’ll grudgingly admit everybody needs a bit of video in their lives. And truth be told, I do it myself, though it’s
all mostly usually in the name of research and finding quality content for DADSCI.
YouTube is the go-to website for video these days, but it’s such a vast digital universe, so chock full of content that it’s virtually impossible to screen it all. So what’s an overworked editor to do? Narrow down the search parameters to a few choice channels for starters. Then share those channels with his readers so they can spend a bit of time on their own tuning in for a strong dose of inspiration and education.
What follows is the the list of DADSCI’s favorite YouTube channels (in no particular order). They’re full of great ideas, mad building skills, and more than a fair bit of STEM.
1. Jimmy DiResta
Jimmy DiResta is a life-long Maker with more than 40 years of experience using tools and a couple of Maker-themed television hosting gigs under his belt. A veritable Maker Ninja, Jimmy saws, drills, plasma cuts, welds and blacksmiths a regular stream of completely random-yet-awesome designs and projects on his channel. If you’re not careful, you can spend more than a few hours (take my word for it) watching Jimmy restore old tools to pristine condition, make machetes out of rusty saw blades, build furniture, fabricate signs, and generally create his way through anything placed in front of him. He even imparts a bit of tool-mage wisdom with tips and tricks he’s learned along the way. Pack a lunch and prepare to take notes, you might just be here for a while.
2. Sick Science!
The YouTube channel of Steve Spangler, America’s most famous science teacher, Sick Science! is an eclectic selection of projects, tricks, and experiments that you can try at home with a little preparation and a few simple supplies. High production values, short videos, and no voiceovers make these videos perfect for shorter attention spans. The lack of an explanation about the scientific principles that make these tricks work can be frustrating for those who need a bit of instant gratification, but each video ends with a question that should spur the dedicated, budding scientist to do their research.
3. Minute Physics
Randall Munroe is the brains and hands behind the popular xkcd, the website that explains some of the most difficult scientific theories and laws in the universe with stick figures and simple words. He’s a physics major who worked on robots at NASA’s Langley Research Center before becoming famous for his cartoons, so it’s a sure bet he knows what he’s talking about (don’t let the stick figures fool you). He’s also the author of the two hit books What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, and Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.
Complex science broken down into simple, entertaining art and even simpler language is right up DADSCI’s alley. And it might just work for you, too, when your kids start asking those mind-numbingly difficult questions you don’t have the answers for.
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, the legends behind the wildly popular television show, Myth Busters, can be found online at Tested. The blog, started by Will Smith (not the actor) and Norman Chan in 2010, is a potpourri of geeky awesomeness with posts and videos about building quadcopters and replicas of famous movie props, coverage of various cons (conventions), cosplayers, and their other random interests and passions. Both the website and the YouTube channel are light on the busting and heavy on the building, modeling, crafting, etc. But that’s okay, Adam and Jamie will always be myth busters to us.
5. Punished Props
Up until relatively recently, making movie props was the domain of, well, professional movie prop makers in Hollywood. And also, as it turns out, that of a quiet-yet-industrious subculture of sci-fi and video game fans who wanted to pack the same blasters, swords, and other paraphernalia their on-screen heroes did. Now that cosplayers, cons (Comic-Con, Emerald City Comicon, Monster-Con, Thelistgoeson-Con), and their ilk have hit the mainstream, so has prop making.
One of the more well-known independent prop makers carving out a name for themselves in this crowded field is Punished Props, run by Bill and Brittany Doran out of Seattle. Bill started making props with friends as a hobby, then turned it into a full-blown career a few years later. Now, he and Brittany are the king and queen of their own prop and a burgeoning DIY media empire.
While some trolls out there might argue that making foam props isn’t quite STEMmy, I disagree. It seems as if you might need some decent technology, engineering and math chops to pull off almost any of the designs you see on the Punished Props channel. In addition to, you know, basic tool handling, working with a variety of materials, 3D printing, and the like. Yep, definitely STEMmy.
6. The Backyard Scientist
It wasn’t so long ago that kids were only seemed to get elbow deep in science during school hours or while prepping for the annual science fair. Thanks to the internet, the democratization of technology, the ubiquity of video cameras, and—hopefully—an increasing interest in STEM, you can find a countless array of YouTube channels featuring kids doing science. One of the best and most interesting is the Backyard Scientist. I only recently discovered this channel, but I’m already hooked.
Not satisfied with mundane science, the Backyard Scientist pushes the envelope on both comprehension and safety, pulling off stunts and experiments most adults wouldn’t dare try. Like most teenagers, the host seems to have a thing for ballistics, fire, and explosions, with his edgier videos exploring the effects of dry ice bombs exploding in a pool, molten aluminum being poured in and onto various mediums, and molten salt (I don’t even know what that is!) being dumped in a tank of water.
Those crazy millenials…
7. The Slingshot Channel
Q: What’s cooler than an almost endless supply of videos showing a guy shooting slingshots, fully automatic pencil gatling guns, and circular saw blade launchers?
A: Knowing that the guy shooting them is the same one who made them in his shop out of some scrap wood, rubber bands, and stuff laying around the house, that’s what.
Joerg Sprave is the the builder of the wacky (yet still dangerous) weapons he gleefully demonstrates in his videos. While the combination of his German accent, shaved head, beefy build and penchant for rubber-powered implements of doom might give the first-time viewer pause, remember that looks can be deceiving. Give Joerg more than ten seconds of your time and it becomes readily apparent that he’s more kooky uncle + mad scientist than mosh pit maniac. I don’t know what he does for a living, but what he does for fun become feats of engineering brilliance.
While you might not condone handmade weapons of war, think about this: almost every college engineering student these days is building their own catapults and trebuchets to learn the fundamentals of their discipline. Just sayin’.
8. Howe & Howe Technologies
Put tank treads on something—anything, really—and you immediately up it’s cool factor. The brothers Howe know this, and have made a career of doing just that. In addition to once hosting their own reality TV show focusing on the burly rides they design and build, the brothers hold world records for building the fastest tank and the smallest armored vehicle, and they also design vehicles for the military and Hollywood movies (with tank treads, of course).
If that’s not impressive enough, they’ve put tank treads on unmanned firefighting apparatus and ballistic shields for SWAT teams, have designed a robotic bulldozer, and even juice up wheelchairs with tank treads, souped-up engines, and roll bars. And I thought my job was cool.
Nothing says “inspiration” like TED. The nonprofit that puts some of the world’s greatest minds on stage for its TED Talks has more than four million subscribers, and is running north of half a billion views on its channel. Cull through years’ worth of talks (21,000+ by their count) by famous authors, scientists, researchers, roboticists, physicians, etc., for almost any subject you might find interesting. You’ll definitely learn something new along the way.
You can’t mention STEM these days without mentioning the Maker movement, the worldwide phenomenon that, it seems, has sucked up every living human, and spawned an industry of handmade goods, media, and products for those bent on crafting their own… anything. If, by now, you’re one of the few who have yet to be assimilated, just give it time. Chances are that if you’re not currently hacking, building, wiring, or otherwise creating something today, you’ll be getting to it soon enough.
Make: is the standard bearer for the Maker movement, ponying up a regular supply of projects, ideas, and tips for anybody willing to try their hand at making something in their free time. Their YouTube channel does the same, highlighting everything from some of America’s best-known Makers to tutorials on tool use, the myriad Maker faires popping up around the country, and more tips and tricks to help both beginners and experts alike.
Nerf gun wars, karate battles, and explosions are pretty much daily fare here at DADSCI HQ (okay, maybe we don’t experience explosions every day), and while ours tend to be eyebrow-raising experiences for the neighbors, they don’t hold a candle to some of the shenanigans going on over at Corridor Digital. The small VFX (visual effects) team, according to their website, dreams up “sci-fi, action, and video game-inspired YouTube videos, jam-packed with stunning VFX and movie-like cinematography.”
Spend just a few minutes watching any of their videos (check out their latest one, above), and you get the idea that the crew at Corridor Digital definitely enjoys what it’s doing for a living, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. And who wouldn’t? I mean, it’s a workday full of Nerf gun wars, karate battles, explosions and, apparently, so much more.
But watcher beware (especially if you’re going to plop your kids down in front of the company’s YouTube channel while you go for a fresh cup of joe): While much of their work is wacky, light-hearted and hilarious—often crossing into downright cartoonish—there are a few selections chock full o’ simulated violence, a bit of simulated gore, and strong language. So screen those vids before you give your budding VFXer or Neill Blomkamp a look-see.
If you’ve spent more than three seconds here on DADSCI, it’s probably pretty—okay, blatantly—obvious that I’m a huge Star Wars fan. H.U.G.E. It should come as no surprise, then, that I’m getting into the act and letting you know that Disney/Lucasfilm just dropped the first official trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story yesterday.
Unless you’ve been in carbon-freeze (carbon-frozen?) for the past year or so, you know that Rogue One is the story of the plucky band of Rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star, the theft of which ultimately led to it’s destruction at the hands (and proton torpedoes) of a certain farm boy/future Jedi named Luke Skywalker. The movie also happens to be the first in what promises to be a long line of spin-offs set in the Star Wars universe.
Given that Rogue One is set mere weeks before Luke and the crew blow that thing and go home at the end of Episode IV/A New Hope (whatever we’re calling it these days), this is the story behind the story (sorry, prequels). So not only do we get to see old-school stormtroopers and other original trilogy tech, but we’re also introduced to new characters, ships, and bad guys.