A LEGO Set to Change the World?

February 24, 2017

LEGO is an unusual medium to showcase the crucial contributions of five key women at NASA, but with seven sets sold every second and a staggeringly large global following, it has the power to influence. Space exploration is a field dominated by men such as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and, more recently, Tim Peake. The roles played by scientists, engineers and designers behind the scenes are largely overlooked, particularly the contributions made by women. Maia Weinstock, a science editor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is trying to change this by proposing a new LEGO set design.

Margaret Hamilton © Draper Laboratory Original Via WikiMedia / Creative Commons Public Domain

In July 2016, Weinstock uploaded her concept which celebrates the work of computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, mathematician Katherine Johnson, astronauts Mae Jemison and Sally Ride, and astronomer Nancy Grace Roman to the LEGO Ideas website. The site encourages fans of all ages to pitch ideas to the company. If a project gains 10,000 supporters a review panel will decide whether or not to sell the design as an official kit. Endorsements from NASA and the scientific community helped blast Weinstein’s kit into the review stage in a record fifteen days and an announcement from the panel is expected at some point this month.

Despite the great following from adults, LEGO is primarily a children’s building toy. Why then should we be more excited about this kit over another? The main reason is that presently women are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries. In the UK two years ago, women made up just 12.8% of the workforce. The UK economy has an annual deficit of 40,000 workers for this crucial area of the economy – a shortfall that must be addressed if the country wants to continue as a global competitor in these fields of development.

One way to reduce this gap is to encourage more young girls to study STEM subjects and then pursue careers in these areas; currently, only 15% of university engineering applicants are female. By creating toys which promote the work of female scientists and astronauts, thousands of girls across the world will be given new role models to look towards. In a fun environment these toys show it’s not just boys who can make scientific breakthroughs or help send rockets into space.

And it’s not just LEGO who are producing toys with this aim. Last year Barbie, synonymous with outdated feminine tropes, got a scientific upgrade. The Barbie STEM Kit includes instructions for children on how to prototype a spinning clothes rack. By completing this seemingly frivolous task, girls can learn about gear ratios and torque, allowing them to incorporate the concepts into other interests they might have. After all, why can’t a girl be interested in cogs and clothes?

At first glance, Weinstock’s Five Women of NASA LEGO set might seem trivial, but it’s small steps like this which will make a difference. By highlighting great role models, maybe more young girls will realise that they are smart enough to pursue successful careers in these exciting fields of human endeavour.

Feature Image:  © Maia Weinstock (@20tauri) Original via LEGO Ideas

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