The childhood toys that inspired female engineers and scientists

In his column Monday Vivek Wadhwa addressed the need for toys that help develop today’s girls to become the great engineers and scientists of tomorrow. We asked a group of women what helped them toward their passion for science and technology:

Meha Agrawal, The Muse back-end engineer

(Courtesy of Annielogue/Wikipedia Commons)
(Courtesy of Annielogue/Wikipedia Commons)

My most inspirational childhood toy was a kit of wooden pattern blocks—a set of different shapes where each shape corresponded with a specific color.

I would empty the box of blocks and separate them by color, which conveniently was also by shape. I would then sit and spend some time visualizing what I wanted my end product to look like—not necessarily in minute detail, but the bigger picture of color placing, the size of my wooden pattern, and the number of center pieces I wanted to use. Starting from the center, I would add tier after tier of blocks to build my pattern—it was an iterative process, because if something didn’t look aesthetically appealing or fit correctly, it would require peeling off a layer and reevaluating ways to fix it. The best part was the gratification I received when my creation was complete. Though individually boring, collectively these blocks produced an intricate masterpiece that brought art and math, big-picture and detail, simplicity and complexity closer together — similar to software engineering.

These blocks inspired me to think logically, creatively, and symmetrically simultaneously—all strategies I utilize today as a full-stack software engineer.

Tiffani Ashley Bell, Pencil You In CEO and founder

(Mike Kuniavsky/FlickrCreative Commons license)
(Mike Kuniavsky/Flickr/Creative Commons license)

I was in first grade or so and my mom bought me a V-Tech PreComputer 1000. This was 1991 or so.

It came equipped with games and different learning activities, but I got tired of the built-in stuff. Even as a kid, I was prone to reading user manuals for things. Turns out the PreComputer 1000 had a BASIC programming language tutorial in the user manual and you could write your own programs on it!

Somehow, I figured out what this meant and started making my own word games. That was the first time I ever did any programming.

Fast forward a few years and my mom was still buying me Barbies. I thought they were boring, however, and sold nearly all of them at a yard sale when I was in 3rd grade or so.

Serena Booth, Harvard sophomore, former robotic game designer for the Disney Research Lab at MIT

(Steve Berry/Flickr/Creative Commons license)
(Steve Berry/Flickr/Creative Commons license)

My first personal computer, a text-based BBC Micro motivated my interest in technology. When I was very young — maybe 2 or 3 years old — one of my elder brothers sat down with me and scripted an incredibly simple game. The premise was that a snake, represented by an ‘S’ on the screen could be controlled by the mouse; the object of the game was to eat mice, represented by commas. This incredibly simple computer game held my attention for hours upon hours upon hours. I was enthralled not only by my super-fun game, but also by my being involved in the creation of it; for the very first time, I’d created my own toy. The impact of this sense of creation, innovation even, has followed me throughout my life and pushed me toward a career in technology.

Grace Gee, Harvard junior studying computer science

I didn’t love many toys, but I loved Neopets, an online virtual pet game. I hoarded Neopoints by spending hours on the Maths Nightmare game. I hacked at the auctioning system to get the puzzle pieces to the secret labs. These elementary game-theory concepts eventually stuck on me even after I abandoned my Kacheek.

Bonny Hinners, software developer and database solutions architect

I was inspired by a children’s book.  My family owned a few picture books, but only one of them was two books in one.  If you held it you would see the cover of one book. If you flipped it over, bottom to top, you would see the cover of another book.

It wasn’t as much two stories as it was a description of good little girls on on side, little boys on the other.  The little girl was illustrated doing housework indoors alongside her mother, in matching dresses and aprons.  The little boy on the opposite side of the book was pictured outside, playing and climbing trees.  I loved climbing trees and I hated that book.  Why should the boy be free to play while the girl’s only fun was doing chores?

T.D. Lowe, CEO of EnovationNation

I had the standard toys: dolls, Barbie coloring books, make-up, etc. But none of these compared to the monumental day that I was introduced to Star Wars. My life was forever changed.  I am certain that George Lucas would not consider his multi-million dollar production a toy, but this one film created for me the best backdrop for the possibilities of life and provided countless hours of imaginary play. I begin to dream of what the world could be, a world where life beyond the stars and interplanetary travel was the standard not the exception. Star Wars ignited the scientist in me.

The visual affects of Princess Leia, both female and Jedi, made me believe that I a girl could conquer the stars.  This quest for the stars led me to a passion for innovation and science.  Where as most dreamed of going to Mars in our lifetime, I never had expectation that we wouldn’t go to Mars in our lifetime.  Science through Star Wars became a reality to me and served as the blueprint of possibility for what my future could be.  George Lucas, my hero and now the hero of my 7-year-old niece and 9-year-old nephew, has done more to incite the possibilities of science in my heart than all of than any toy I ever played with as a child.

Laura Matthews, NYU Ph.D. student in biological anthropology

(Ingo Lutkebohle/Flickr/Creative Commons license)
(Ingo Lutkebohle/Flickr/Creative Commons license)

The toy that shaped my childhood was Legos, especially Lego robotics, though admittedly for more reasons than just the pure play.  I enjoyed Legos from an early age, since while there are an infinite number of combinations, the individual pieces and how they fit together are quite discrete.  I like discrete things for whatever reasons — when given two things that I can fit together in an infinite number of ways I tend to freeze up and not do anything.  Hence I don’t draw, paint, or do most open-ended art projects.  I like when individual pieces have rules about how they fit with each other.

In middle school, I started Lego robotics.  In addition to building a robot to complete pre-announced challenges, you must program it to complete the challenges autonomously.  Here I loved the goal-driven environment, where you could explore with building a streamlined robot, or a fast one, or a strong one, or a variety of other optimizations best suited for the tasks.  Here is where I started programming — and I really enjoyed it.  Like the Legos themselves, elements of a program can only fit together in a certain amount of prescribed ways.  Programming is an open-ended puzzle with a few constraints.  I was the kid who would stay up until the wee hours of the morning making sure there were no bugs in the program.  Now I do the same thing!  Just in different languages and with different goals.

Erin McPillan, Michelin North America research and development engineer

Legos are a toy that makes us think. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
Legos are a toy that make us think. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

When I was growing up, Legos were my and my sister’s favorite toy.  We had a giant bucket full of them (or at least, it seemed huge then), and we would dump them all out on the floor with my dad and play for hours.  I think that most of the time we built just for the sake of building, but I also built many variations of paddocks and stables for my Lego horseback riding set (at that age, I wanted to be a veterinarian).

I didn’t decide to become an engineer until I was in high school (thanks to my fantastic physics teacher, Mr. Roberts), but looking back, I can see that building with Legos was a clear precursor to the degree I pursued and the job I have now.  To this day I still really enjoy problems that require me to visualize objects in 3D and work in different 3D coordinate systems.

 Patricia Cristina Perozo, Stanford freshman, intends to major in computer science

I was given ello as a child and really enjoyed creating houses, people, animals, and furniture out of the pieces.  It was like Legos but more interesting and directed at girls.  Although I will never become an architect I believe that it really contributed to my spatial understanding and problem solving capabilities.

Lisa Routel, consultant, former pharmaceutical chemist

(Courtesy of Arpingstone/Wikipedia Commons)
(Courtesy of Arpingstone/Wikipedia Commons)

My mom searched far and wide for the perfect Christmas presents for me, and she bought me tumbled gemstone and crystal growing kits.  The tumbled gemstone kit used a rock tumbler to polish agate, quartz, and jasper minerals.  This was a long (and loud!) process, but it was well worth the time and effort.  I learned to identify the different minerals and classify them.  The kit also came with jewelry-making tools, and I made rings and necklaces of some of my favorite stones, and saved the rest for my ever-growing rock collection.

I also loved my crystal growing kit.  Over several days, you would grow crystals on rocks which take on the appearance of amethysts, rose quartz, and other beautiful gems.  The kits came with a little lab notebook to record your observations, which prepared me to become an insightful, patient, and detail-oriented adult (all of which are necessary traits to have if you work in a lab environment).  The scientific interests that I pursued in my youth will always remain my foundation, and I will never cease to be inquisitive, passionate, and see the world as only a “scientist” would.

Sonal Shah, Case Foundation, senior fellow; Georgetown professor

We did not have many toys when we were growing up.  Our parents were immigrants, with limited means at the time and hence they offered us a ton creativity and energy.  Since I can remember, our mom taught us our multiplication tables before the age of 5. Helping her around the kitchen, following her around, she used to randomly ask multiplication table questions.  Our basic toys were largely blocks, coloring books and paper, crayons and pens.

As we got older, our dad used to teach us how to fix things in our house and the car, so we learned basic mechanics. Then, our parents, when they had the means bought us our first Apple computer when no one else had one and I learned to program.

Sophie Vandebroek, Xerox chief technology officer

Most of what I did was read books (we went to the library weekly) and spend time with our animals.

We had so many animals while growing up: cats, dogs, hamsters, turtles, goats, rabbits, chickens, a horse, birds, fish, etc… A lot of my time was spend with them, especially my horse. My dad grew up on a farm, so I guess he wanted his kids to experience some of what it was like to grow up with animals.

Twice a year I would get a “present,” for my birthday and the New Year. Most of my presents were related to our animals. Reflecting back I must have gotten my love for science from interacting with our many animals. For a while I even dreamed of being a vet.

Kitt Vanderwater, Google software engineer

(Courtesy of Discovery Toys)
(Courtesy of Discovery Toys)

When I was younger I never tired of playing with MarbleWorks.

MarbleWorks sets come with a variety of tubes, chutes, and tracks that when snapped together allow marbles to hurtle down the plastic course until they satisfyingly smash into the little cupped finish line.

As a kid, I connected an unending number of tracks. I left my masterpieces wobbling and snaking around the rooms of my house. Elaborate constructions would start in the most perilous of places: at the tops of stairs, in one bedroom and trailing to the next, some reached as high as the ceiling. I was enthralled by building even bigger, better racetracks for my marbles, and loved sending handfuls of them down crazy paths.

MarbleWorks was a toy that ignited the same passions and ambitions that computer science does. When I write code, and wait for it to run, I get that same jolt of excitement I did when I sent the first test marble down an elaborate course. And the best part, is that both Marbleworks and engineering make it easy to be successful. I didn’t need the precision of perfectly balanced blocks, or complicated instructions in order to build towering structures, I could speedily snap together pieces, and send waves of marbles down in an afternoon. In the same way, when programming I can start with an idea in the morning and actually see progress by afternoon.

I loved building as a kid, and I still get to build today, with code.

Cassidy Williams, Iowa State senior majoring in computer science

(Photo courtesy the Lego Group)
(Photo courtesy the Lego Group)

Throughout my childhood, I played with Legos. I loved making things and breaking things and exercising both sides of my brain (though at the time I didn’t realize I was doing so).

I would build with my sister for hours on end, we made everything from big castles to ziplines for the Lego people.  To this day, I keep some Legos in my room just in case I feel like making something cool again.

When I discovered programming, I equated Legos to code.  I thought of blocks of code as Lego blocks.  Putting them together into a program was like building my next castle.  By coding, I was able to make things like I always had, just with a computer in front of me.  I was completely hooked!

 What inspired you? Let us know in the comments.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | December 9, 2013