If you were watching the Super Bowl on Sunday with an eye especially tuned to the ads, you were not alone. Super Bowl Sunday is big business for advertisers. Chips. Beverages. Condiments. Cars. More cars. You might see ads for all of these in 30-90 second spots between turnovers. But this year, you also saw the promise and potential of a future generation of girl engineers.
As a result of the "Small Business Big Game" contest sponsored by Intuit, GoldieBlox won an all-paid ticket this year to Super Bowl advertising history. The fledgling, Kickstarter-backed company scored big on Sunday as the first small business to have airtime during the Super Bowl. With a hefty price tag for a few seconds of face time with the millions of eyeballs glued to the set throughout the game and during the half-time show, Super Bowl Sunday tends to be an all-pro game. Like the Goldilocks character the company's name brings to mind, GoldieBlox got a chance yesterday to try out the big field and maybe make a game-changing play for girls and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
"Construction toys get kids interested in math and science and help develop spatial skills," says Debbie Sterling, founder and CEO of GoldieBlox. "We don't have a national shortage of princesses," she continues, countering that "only 11% of engineers in the U.S. are women, and this is a problem." To tackle this shortage and the gender imbalance in STEM fields, and to make engineering something that isn't automatically perceived as a boy's club, GoldieBlox is setting out to show that girls are "more" than just princess material—and that princesses can, absolutely, be engineers.
Making the Play
Helping feed and enable girls' interest in engineering, the GoldieBlox line of integrated engineering and storytelling products aims to inject the princess aisle in the toy store with a much-needed boost of STEM. But GoldieBlox's Super Bowl ad didn't really focus on their product. The girls in the ad are not sitting around after having a miniature tea party with a bunch of stuffed animals and building pastel-colored dioramas or dollhouse furniture. Instead, to the beat of a Quiet Riot parody, the girls build a rocket and blast a bunch of their "girly" toys (including a bunch of stuffed animals) to space (or at least "out of the park").
The thirty-second ad is largely conceptual, but the engineering is there, as are the GoldieBlox components. To get a toy rocking horse out of an upstairs window, a few girls use an ingenious pulley system. Take a closer look. Pause the video at about three seconds. What do you see? The girls have rigged a purple bicycle as part of their system. Next up, girls attach a skateboard to a bike to help them move an oversized dollhouse as they run and ride to the rendezvous point with masses of other girls (all with their own toys) singing "Come on ditch your toys. Girls make some noise. More than pink, pink, pink, we want to think."
In the final seconds of the ad, the rocket is blasted into space by a girl who, from a safe distance away (smart!), uses a plunger-style mechanism built from GoldieBlox elements to initiate liftoff. It's a great, if fleeting, integration of the product in the commercial.
What's going on between the lines of the ad? The girls' parody of Quiet Riot's lyrics help spell it out, but you don't have to look far into the commercial to realize there are no adults on hand helping pull off this goodbye party, rocket building, and launch. You don't have to dig too deep to see what they are putting on that rocket and casting aside. These girls combined mechanical and engineering skills with innovation and creativity to make a bold statement about what they are being "given" and what they "want."
Another Classic GoldieBlox Video
A GoldieBlox video last year used a parody of a Beastie Boys song as backtrack for a group of girls who, bored with the TV lineup and a room of pink toys, design, build, and activate an amazing Rube Goldberg contraption. The video has since been edited to remove the backtrack, but even without a modern spin on the Beastie Boys' "Girls," the video is a compelling look at the issue of toys and entertainment marketed to girls, and the ways in which engineering is presented (or not) for girls starting at a young age.
Engineering for Fun
A Rube Goldberg machine is a machine that is designed to do a simple task, but it does so through a series of complicated, interrelated, and interdependent movements and exchanges between ordinary objects. The classic Mouse Trap game is a familiar example of a very simple (and contained) Rube Goldberg-style machine. This Wikipedia description of the "mouse trap" in the game walks through the steps of the chain reaction. If all goes as planned,
"the player turns the crank, which rotates a vertical gear, connected to a horizontal gear. As that gear turns, it pushes an elastic-loaded lever until it snaps back in place, hitting a swinging boot. This causes the boot to kick over a bucket, sending a marble down a zig-zagging incline (the "rickety stairs") which feeds into a chute. This leads the marble to hit a vertical pole, at the top of which is an open hand, palm-up, which is supporting [another marble]. The movement of the pole knocks the ball free to fall through a hole in its platform into a bathtub, and then through a hole in the tub onto one end of a seesaw. This launches a diver on the other end into a tub which is on the same base as the barbed pole supporting the mouse cage. The movement of the tub shakes the cage free from the top of the pole and allows it to fall."
If everything works correctly, if the contraption is set right and operates without any unexpected hiccups or misfires, the mouse is trapped in the cage, and the player who triggered the "mouse trap" machine wins. In the GoldieBlox video, the girls start out staring at a swathe of pink programming on TV. Frustrated, they get out their tools, and they take care of business. They create a machine to turn off the TV. They don't just get up, walk the few feet to the TV, and press the knob. Instead, they turn their "need" into an opportunity to innovate, engineer, build, and have fun.
Put it in Action
If you saw Sunday's GoldieBlox ad—with or without your kids—and you got inspired about girls and engineering, then it's time to get creative! As the earlier video shows, there is a lot of brilliant engineering at play in a fun and unexpected Rube Goldberg machine built from ordinary materials. Build a machine with your kids? Or suggest that they design one? Exactly!
A Rube Goldberg design can be amazingly complex in design, timing, and detail, but it is a simple machine made of many individual parts. Watching one play out can be inspiring and exciting, but can you and your kids make one? You and your students? You? Yes!
To learn more about the engineering and science involved in a Rube Goldberg design, check the following projects:
- There's a Machine in My Toy Box: explore the six types of simple machines and take a look at toys around the house to see which ones you can find.
- Rubber Bands for Energy: investigate how the distance of stretch in a rubber band at rest relates to the distance the rubber band travels after being released.
- Gears-Go-Round: count the number of teeth on gears and figure out how to calculate gear ratios by putting the gears together.
- Jack It Up! Lift a Load Using Hydraulics: learn how to harness the power of fluids, like water, to help lift really heavy things.
- Bomb's Away! A Ping Pong Catapult: experiment with the settings to reliably launch a ping-pong ball from the catapult into a target.
- Give It a Lift with a Lever: build a tabletop lever and investigate how changing the length of the effort arm affects the amount of effort it takes to lift an object.
- Put Your Water to Work: Using Hydropower to Lift a Load: convert the energy in falling water to mechanical energy to lift a small weight.
- Roller Coaster Marbles: How Much Height to Loop the Loop?: build a roller coaster for marbles and investigate how much height is needed in order for the marble to run through a loop of fixed size.
The above projects won't walk you through setting up a specific Rube Goldberg machine, but they do, taken together, offer insight into the toolbox of engineering and science principles needed to design a successful, jaw-dropping, high-five-worthy chain reaction. The more you know about simple machines, gears, torque, trajectory, force, potential and kinetic energy, gravity, pull-back and launch angles, velocity, and motion, the better you will be able to design, troubleshoot, and engineer your contraption.
To get started, figure out what you want to accomplish, and then start scavenging materials from around the house (be sure to check the toy box and the junk drawer). Pool together as many items as you can that might help you move your chain reaction from start to end point. Then start hooking them together in a series of reactions.
We would love to see what you come up with!
More Girls and STEM from the Science Buddies Blog
- The New CEO of General Motors Inspires Students about Engineering
- Exciting Girls about Science and Engineering
- Encouraging and Inspiring Female Student Engineers
- A Picture Book Look at the Engineering Spirit
- Girls at After-school Program Science Event Explore Paper Airplanes
- Girls Explore Engineering with Marble Run Challenge
- Artificial Intelligence and Cancer Diagnosis: Meet the 2012 Google Science Fair Winner
- Playful Programming and Cool Code: From Tech User to Tech Creator
- Women in Engineering: Mary Barra Takes Keys to Car Manufacturing Company
Stay tuned! Introduce a Girl to Engineering day is coming up, February 20, 2014, part of DiscoverE's Engineers Week.