The toys that could help close Silicon Valley's gender gap

Dash & Dot robot.
Source: Wonder Workshop

When it comes to getting more girls interested in coding, research shows you should start early.

As early as second grade, girls begin to form stereotypes associating boys with math, according to a 2015 study conducted by the University of Washington. By the time they enter college, men are already more than four times more likely to have an intention to major in computer science and engineering than women, the study found.

Vikas Gupta, CEO of Wonder Workshop, didn't like these numbers, and was upset that his 4-year-old daughter would be discouraged from learning the tools of the tech trade.

"When you ask kids in elementary schools how many of them were interested in technology, you see an equal number of boys and girls raise their hands," Gupta said. "By middle school, that's dropped."

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After reading an article that said that all first grade students in Estonia are required to take an introductory computer programming course, Gupta—the former head of consumer payments at Google—decided to create coding opportunities for his daughter.

When you ask kids in elementary schools how many of them were interested in technology, you see an equal number of boys and girls raise their hands.
Vikas Gupta
CEO of Wonder Workshop

So in 2013, he and two co-founders, Saurabh Gupta and Mikal Greaves, started Play-i, now Wonder Workshop, whose chief products are Dash and Dot, two toy robots that teach children how to code.

Dash and Dot made their debut through a Kickstarter project in October 2013, in a campaign that raised $1.4 million.

Through different tablet apps, kids can program Dash to follow commands, such as looking toward whoever is talking, speaking a recorded phrase or following a given path to race around on the living room floor.

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Dot, who does not move, can sense how a child is holding or tossing him. A popular function is to program him to work like a Magic 8 ball. Ask Dot a yes-or-no question, shake him and he'll tell you what he thinks.

Wonder Workshop offers three different apps children can use to command Dash and Dot, each catered to a different age group and the most common app, Blockly, being the company's most basic coding app.

Wonder Workshop works with partners in 37 countries and shipped more than $3.5 million of product in 2014.

'A blend between education and computers'

Dash & Dot robot.
Source: Wonder Workshop

On June 29, Wonder Workshop furthered its commitment to the classroom with the launch of its Teacher Portal.

Educators who might use the robots in their classroom can come to the portal and add their stories of how they've integrated the robot into their daily curriculum, lending ideas to others who may be considering the robots for their classrooms.

"We see ourselves as a blend between education and computers," Gupta said. "Our focus is not on selling technology to the teachers. We're focused on finding the best way to effectively use the robots in the classrooms."

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June Lin, who headed the creation of the Teacher Portal at Wonder Workshop, said Dash and Dot weren't created with a certain type of child in mind.

"We're very intentional in making it accessible to both genders," she said. "We don't think that toys should be 'girl toys' or 'boy toys' like a lot of traditional toy companies, and the competitors out there tend to lean one way or the other."

Michelle Eckstein, elementary technology teacher at Peak to Peak Charter School in Colorado, uses Dash and Dot in her classroom as a way of allowing her students to visualize their code projects.

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"For students who have a tough time understanding a right angle, when they programmed and saw the robot walk about a right angle, it was like an 'aha!' moment," she said.

Eckstein sees Dash and Dot helping students with much more than just their coding skills.

"They're collaborative," she said. "We don't have enough iPads for each to have their own, so they have to work together. That's something that this generation needs to know how to do."

'Look at it and solve a problem'

A young girl playing with Wonder Workshop’s Dash & Dot robots.
Source: Copyright Brandy Fortune

As an information architect, Brandy Fortune, always wanted to expose her daughters, ages 7 and 5, to code early on.

So when she heard about Dash & Dot, she immediately put in her order, which was delivered right before Christmas.

"I'm always looking for anything for my girls," Fortune said. "And I've always wanted personally for my girls to be introduced to this at an early age."

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One in a movement

Source: KinderLab Robotics

Wonder Workshop isn't the only toy company teaching kids how to code. On Kickstarter and Indiegogo there are companies like Robotiky, CodeBots, and Codie.

Then there's KinderLab Robotics, which raised about $78,500 on Kickstarter in June 2014 for its robot toy KIBO.

Similar to Wonder Workshop's Dash & Dot, kids code the robots to follow commands. But instead of using an app, kids can plug wooden blocks into the robot to do certain commands, like shake or sing.

"The idea of using coding with only a computer screen is kind of old," co-founder Marina Umaschi Bers said.

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Bers, who is also a professor at Tufts University, said her research shows that a child's interest in coding is found by having them use the objects around them.

"Most of the other companies are developing robotic systems for children, not necessarily for young children," she said. "We focus on 4-to-7-year-olds. Developmentally, those are different from 12-year-olds."

KinderLab Robotics has partners in 40 states and 27 countries.

Bers said to get children interested in science, technology, engineering and math, start early.

"If we don't start the STEM-related learning when they're very young, as children start to grow a little bit, they start forming stereotypes," Bers said. "And then it's kind of made."