STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) has been a highly talked about subject in the last year. The percentage of men versus women working in these fields is greatly different, and this gap is important because these jobs are not only crucial to society, but also innovative and highly paid. Meaning that by not working in these fields women are falling behind in society. While there are many reasons for this gap, it is known that girls lose interest in these subjects by the ages of 10-12.
Working with two other woman, we brainstormed and prototyped the app Laboratoria with the goal of keeping girls interested in engineering. In Laboratoria kids learn to create, build, and use their imagination to solve problems and keep the lab running. They do this by solving engineering puzzles using parts that are provided and animated them in a sequence that allows their inventions to come to life. In Laboratoria, girls learn essential science and engineering skills, while allowing them to be in control and do what they do best, use their imagination to play.
There is an overwhelmingly large gap between men and women in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Research shows that girls interest in math and science drops dramatically between the ages of 10 and 14. We were challenged to create an app that keeps girls interested in the STEM subjects as they grow.
There are many factors that contribute to the large gap between the number of men and women that are working in STEM industries. Many of these factors start at a young age, however, quite a few occur on the job or in college. Some of these contributing factors include:
A lack of female role models in the industry. This means that girls are more likely to associate these jobs with male figures.
STEM jobs are perceived as less social. Scientists are often shown working long hours by themselves. Girls, particularly young girls, are very social and this makes these jobs seem less appealing
Girls are less likely to be pushed towards STEM topics and in some cases steered away from them
These are just several factors that contribute to a large and complicated issue. These three points, however, are large contributors that everyone can address in their own ways.
Our solution was to create an app that allowed the girls to take control and play the role of a scientist. The goal of the game is to make for the player to make their way to the other end of the lab to save it from destruction. All the while they run into all sorts of trouble that they then must work their way through by solving problems through engineering. The user must use tools and parts to create machines. Then they make them come to life and solve the problem through a series of animation.
In addition to solving puzzles through building, there is also a free build section where players can openly build inventions and obstacles to test out their skills. The app is both challenging and social since, players can build and share their work within the community as well as share tools with friends.
Aside from doing a large amount of research on women and girls in STEM we also looked into popular kids apps, STEM related toys, and conducted some surveys and user interviews of our own. Something that was important for us was reaching a large demographic of girls. This is because many of the current toys are geared at middle or upper class families and our research found that they already had a greater chance of being exposed to STEM.
More than half of the families owned iPads
Girls were not super excited about math and science, but they felt mostly positive about it
Over 60% of parents found apps for their daughters because a friend suggested it
Girls were most interested in math when they found it challenging
Parents like to incorporate math and science into everyday tasks like baking and observing the natural world
I took on the primary responsibility for the wireframing and game design of the app while my teammates started working on the look and feel. The initial idea of the game was that it would be very open ended. The girls would be able to design their machines and test them out with different obstacles. The girls would then build the machines using a variety of different parts and then with then animate them with a series of different behaviors.
After receiving some feedback I altered the game design to provide a storyline that would motivate the players to continue on in the game. This allows for open play within the level, but a greater motivation to progress.
We worked as a team to share ideas and create an empathy as well as a customer journey map. One of the key insights that we learned from this was that the social aspect of the app was very valuable, but we needed to put more thought into it to keep the kids as safe as possible.
We decided that we needed greater parent involvement, but we wanted the kids to still feel like they are in charge. We did this by creating a parent layer. In the app kids can request to be friends with another user, this allows them to message each other and share tools. To be friends, after a request is made by one user, an email is then sent to that user’s parent. If the parent approves then the request is sent to the receiving child’s parent. If that parent also approves then the request is sent to the other user. This allows the friend requests to be controlled by the kids, as well as the parents.
We had the opportunity of visiting Norman Rockwell Elementary and spending an hour with 29 very smart 5th graders. After introducing ourselves and explaining the project we fielding questions from the class for about ten minutes. After that we broke into small groups and walked the kids through the app. Since we only only had two task flows created, we asked the kids what they would do to achieve the steps in the task. This allowed us to test our task flow against the kids mental models.
The class provided outstanding feedback. Among many of the suggestions was adding more gamification through mini-levels and quizzes that would test their understanding of STEM subjects and terminology.
Include definitions for unfamiliar terminology
Add an “undo” or “step back” button
Start with a smaller amount of tools and allow users to gain tools as they progress
Add a strong antagonist to the story
Make the avatars more customizable
Provide a way to lock tools while in use
We wanted the app to feel fun and energizing. We decided to use bright colors and rounded, almost organic shapes because we wanted the brand the feel welcoming and feminine, but still remain gender neutral.
Due to the short timeline we decided build out one main task flow, with several additional screens to help provide a better understanding on the app. The prototype was created using Marvel to allow us to conduct user testing. After receiving feedback we made several changes to our prototype which can be seen and tested.
I created a website to showcase Laboratoria and inform parents of its benefits. It was important to explain that Laboratoria focuses on open ended play allowing girls to develop learning engineering skills and building confidence. Particularly since there is a social aspect to the game, I wanted to make sure that parent’s felt secure and reassured of their child’s safety.