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Toys and Tabletop Games

Smart dolls with style seek to make coding more fun for girls

SmartGurlz is a line of scooter-riding dolls you program with a mobile app. The use of fashion and storylines is part of a plan to get more girls into STEM.

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You can drive Maria on her self-balancing scooter using code.

Chris Monroe/CNET

It's a Saturday afternoon, and I've just crashed a doll on a motorized scooter into a framed picture of my friends from grad school that sits on a low shelf in my living room.

Fortunately, no inanimate objects, motorized or otherwise, are dinged or cracked. However, I need to reassess the code that directed the scooter to attack my former classmates with such zest.

The doll is named Maria. She is one five SmartGurlz fashion dolls that come with a self-balancing motorized scooter dubbed Siggy that you control through an app called SugarCoded. You might have caught SmartGurlz founder and CEO Sharmi Albrechtsen on a November 2017 episode of ABC's "Shark Tank," talking about her struggles to get her daughter interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects in school. Albrechtsen walked away with a deal for $200,000 in return for a 25 percent stake in her company. SmartGurlz is currently raising more money through crowdfunding site SeedInvest and has racked up nearly $150,000 so far. 

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The toy, which sells for $79.99, is supposed to expose girls to the underpinning ideas of coding while maintaining the glossy, light sheen of many toys aimed at girls.

I'm about 20 years past the target audience, yet I like Maria, who shares my curly brown hair and penchant for boots. The difference between Maria and me is that she's a math genius and I count on my fingers in public.

SmartGurlz is part of a wave of coding toys that have popped up in the past several years. They're long-term bets that more kids will grow up to work in tech and fill the ever-widening skills gap. Under the Obama administration, the White House estimated that there were a half million open jobs in IT. Those are the kinds of jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics says are among the highest-paying jobs out there -- a ticket straight into the middle class or even higher.

That all sounds great, right? Afterall, parents have been nudging their kids toward lucrative career paths for eons. But the path toward tech can be a harder one for girls and kids of color for a variety of reasons, including a lack of representation in the field and decades of marketing that subtly and not-so-subtly suggest computers are for boys. (Game Boy, anyone?)

For Albrechtsen, part of the solution is creating a toy specifically for girls that basically screams, "You can be good at math and still have cute shoes." She says gender-neutral coding toys and games just aren't cutting it.

"I wanted to make sure, especially at the younger age, that [girls] gain confidence quickly," she said, "because age 11 is where many girls drop off and lose interest in STEM and they also lose confidence in their math abilities."

Code away

I've been sitting on my living room floor playing with the SugarCoded app. It offers six main activities, including a 10-part introduction that shows you how to use drag and drop "Scratch" blocks representing actions like speed, distance, turns and the like to move the Siggy around. You can trace a path for the Siggy with your finger or control the scooter with a digital joystick. You can even make the scooter kind of dance, selecting the code for the cha cha or Zumba.

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Jun is into chemistry.

Screenshot by CNET

There are four "missions," which are essentially challenges coupled with storylines, like helping your doll visit all the hot dog stands in Central park. Plus, there are e-books for each of the SmartGurlz characters if you're itching to get more info on your doll.

Maria, for example, is a 16-year-old student who is interested in architecture, has a crush on a boy named Oliver and walks dogs to earn money.

I work through the entirety of the app in an afternoon. Some exercises are easier than others. A couple of times, I have to check the answer because I make small mistakes I probably should have caught and then remind myself to be more careful.

In reality, someone playing with the SugarCoded app is not directly dealing with lines of code. The Scratch blocks make up a programming language that introduces the kind of systematic reasoning you need in coding. So, one block might designate speed. You might attach another beneath it to tell the scooter to drive 50 centimeters forward, and another block to tell the Siggy to make a 90-degree-turn.

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Emma is a crafty DIYer.

Screenshot by CNET

Scratch can help you get the big picture and start thinking about how to break down a larger goal into smaller actions, and you don't have to worry that a tiny misplaced semicolon will thwart your code and leave you staring at your screen with simmering rage.

The missions are the most interesting part for me. Each kicks off with a video of one of the SmartGurlz asking for help to do something like collect bird eggs and feathers around Central Park, or hit up tool shops in Manhattan in order to fix a malfunctioning Siggy. You get a map and have to create a route that gets the doll to different stops along the way. Albrechtsen said focusing on stories is a deliberate way in which the app is geared toward girls.

The bummer is that there are only four missions so far. At $79.99, you're hoping for a little more depth. Albrechtsen said she plans to add more missions and features every six months.

Sparking interest and keeping it

The activities are just starting to hint at other concepts that will become important as a child gets into coding, like recognizing when a sequence of actions (say, go forward 50 cm and turn left) could be repeated to accomplish a goal using a repeating block, versus coding the same thing over and over. Part of coding well is coding efficiently.

So no, you can't jump right from SmartGurlz to coding a website. But I can attest that any primer helps.

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Zara likes hacking.

Screenshot by CNET

SmartGurlz owners seem to get this.

I spoke with a few parents, like Kenya Neabar of West Haven, Massachusetts, who bought SmartGurlz doll Zara for her 7-year-old daughter, Taliyah, for Christmas. Neabar said she and her husband make an effort to take Taliyah and her brother to events like coding workshops at their local library.

Taliyah hasn't gotten tired of Zara yet. They play often and Taliyah works through the coding exercises, sorting out why the Siggy went zooming across the room, or what have you. And Zara is cool. She plays electric guitar, she's a computer hacker and she looks like Taliyah. Taliyah takes Zara everywhere and even sleeps with her.

"Zara's part of the family now," Taliyah's mom said.

Emily Brady's daughters Clara and Elena are 7 and 10, star in their own YouTube channel and like playing with their SmartGurlz doll. Brady, who likes to take the girls to community events on STEM topics in their hometown of Galway, Ireland, said she'll give them little assignments and they'll go off together to solve them. SmartGurlz is a toy that's yet to end up abandoned in the closet.

"What we don't want is girls not considering [STEM] because they think they're not smart enough, or that's a boy's career or for the stereotypical reasons," Brady said.

SmartGurlz won't be a girl's last STEM toy. There's others out there, like Goldieblox, which are kits and storybooks based on engineering. There's also the more gender-neutral route, like the subscription-based Kodable app where you guide alien fuzzballs on missions. After all, dolls might not appeal to every girl. Plus, while the toy is made for the 5 and up crowd, girls will walk away from their dolls within a few years. If they want to keep playing around with code, they'll have to move on to something else.

As for Maria and the Siggy, they'll just have to hang tight until their next mission. 

smartgurlz-jen

Jen dreams about inventions.

Screenshot by CNET

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