WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue University experts are challenging the toy aisles this holiday season.
As usual, the "pink aisle" at any Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us is filled with parents shopping for Barbie dolls, purring kittens and a host of fantasy-themed toys — mansions, castles, kitchens, homes, salons — designed for girls.
In a nearby aisle, parents of boys sort through a sea of blue, red and green toys. The newest and most popular Lego sets, such as Forest Ambush, spell out the fantasy scene that the familiar bricks are meant to build.
It's a far cry from the bucket of Legos and tubs of Lincoln Logs that Beth Holloway, director of Purdue's Women in Engineering Program, grew up with.
Holloway is advocating that parents throw away traditional gender roles when choosing toys, and instead examine the value a toy can have in inspiring children to build or create something. And across campus, mechanical engineering students are designing toys aimed at future engineers.
Raising a generation of children — especially girls — who are fluent in skills needed to excel in science, technology, mathematics and engineering is the goal.
"The whole idea of creating something from their imagination and seeing it in front of them is one of the things that can inspire an interest in STEM," Holloway told the Journal & Courier. "You want a toy to challenge them, to stretch them, and to certainly be fun, because that's the whole point, but to also make them have a sense of accomplishment that they've done something."
A council coordinated by President Obama has called for 10,000 new engineering graduates per year.
And women, who make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, are only 24 percent of all STEM workers, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In a laboratory at Purdue, mechanical engineering professor Karthik Ramani is teaching students to conceive and build high-tech and STEM-related toys that could one day infiltrate the toy market with educational value — early training for tomorrow's engineers and computer programmers.
"As an economy, we need to produce students who are creative and innovative in their thinking," Ramani said.
"If you don't have a fun and creative environment for learning engineering, you are just solving problems and getting answers."
Ramani said his students have learned it's important to develop toys with a "high play-value," or toys that keep their interest for an extended period of time. This year his students designed Factory Floor Wars, designed to inspire future engineers, and numerous toys powered by iPads and mobile technology.
The Purdue mechanical engineering professor has extended this philosophy in his course, which he hopes doubles as a fun, high-value learning environment for the soon-to-be engineers.
"We all play," Ramani said. "The only thing is you don't call it play when you get older. The more work becomes play, the better they learn. The trick in these designs is when they play, they don't even know they are learning. That's the best way of learning."
Holloway said she believes the best toys for boys and girls are ones that inspire conversation and innovation.
"I would suggest toys that allow them to create some sort of physical artifact that comes from their imagination," Holloway said. "They've thought about this piece and that piece. What would be really helpful is if they showed it to their parent and their parent asked them, 'What was your process here? What is it meant for? What's its purpose?' "
Despite the obvious gender divide in toy stores, Holloway said it's important to steer children toward toys that require the work of their own imagination, regardless who they're marketed for.
"Don't be constrained by the pink aisle," Holloway said "It's not that the pink aisle in any toy store is bad — they're full of wonderful of things for girls and boys. I would say to parents to think outside society's stereotyping of what their boys should like, and help broaden their daughters' and sons' horizons.
"There isn't a wrong toy to buy for anyone. For young girls, I think parents should take into account what their daughters are interested in, but also how they could build on that interest with a toy that could inspire their children in a different direction."
To many, the pink aisle represents a troubling reality, where girls are often discouraged at a young age from their potential of being successful in science and math.
A National Science Foundation study found that shortly after elementary school, girls begin to "turn away" from STEM. "A principal reason is cultural stereotypes — stereotypes that are changing, but not quickly enough," the report said.
Carmen Valverde-Paniagua, a senior mechanical engineering student who competed in Ramani's class this semester, bucked that trend.
Growing up, Valverde-Paniagua said she believed there were "a lot of things going against me" when it came to pursuing engineering.
She was inspired by her parents — especially her mother, who is an industrial engineer — rather than by her toys.
That's why Valverde-Paniagua purposely designed her toy for Ramani's class, Krusty Krab Katastrophe, in gender-neutral colors.
"I want girls and boys to be able to play this toy together and everyone having fun," Valverde-Paniagua said. "When I was growing up there was really a huge gap in terms of the toys that were catered to girls that were engineering-related."
Holloway offered another reason for women filling more technical jobs.
"In the end, if we don't have a representation in the STEM fields that is very much like our society at large, we're missing the voice of a great number of people who could positively affect our world in ways we can't even imagine — because they're not there," she said.
Ramani said he believes the toy market is changing, and that new toys that are more focused on developing STEM-related skills will get into children's hands.
Ramani said he hopes some might even be from his class.
"In the past, the big toy makers have dominated the market," Ramani said. "But people are finding ways to fund these things. There have been a lot of interesting toys that are getting to the market from startups. The dynamics are changing."