See It, Be It

08.11.148:25 AM ET

Meet Miss Possible

Barbie can put on a lab coat, but Mattel doesn't let her think like a scientist. Two University of Illinois grads want to give girls a different kind of doll.

I finally looked at Barbie and the Girl Scouts’ new “I can be…” website yesterday. Tied to a new line of career dolls, this partnership’s, umm, modernized incarnation of Barbie – which aims to teach children they can be anything they want when they grow up – is partnered with an interactive quiz that encourages children to match the proper accessory to Barbie’s career. Much to my chagrin/amusement, I got several answers wrong. It turns out, no, teacher Barbie doesn’t use a computer. Rather, she uses a pen to “grade papers and write down important things.” Also, apparently pilots use “aviator hats to protect them when they fly” – which I don’t think is true. And presidents (note: plural) who lead the government of a country “live in the White House.” In the United States, yes. I’m not sure about all of the other presidents.  

All of which is to say, thank heaven that little girls (and their parents) have an alternative to “I can be…,” and it’s called “Miss Possible.”  

Created by recent University of Illinois graduates Supriya Hobbs and Janna Eaves, "Miss Possible: Dolls to Inspire Girls Across Generations," are crafted after real female role models like chemist (and two-time Nobel Prize winner) Marie Curie, aviator Bessie Coleman and programmer Ada Lovelace.  

Geared toward girls aged 5 to 10, Miss Possible has already surpassed its funding goal of $75,000 on the crowdfunding site Indigogo (with a week left, the founders are now aiming to meet a stretch goal of $85,000; $45 gets a supporter Marie Curie, $80 Marie and Bessie, $120 for all three). Each doll includes corresponding hands-on activities, like building a compass, and an app with on-screen games that bring the woman’s work to life with chemistry and physics experiments. (While STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is the theme of the first three dolls, chosen because Supriya and Janna felt connected to it as engineers and because women in those fields are rarely seen in media, especially child-oriented media, the company plans to expand to other arenas moving forward.)  

As engineering students, Supriya and Janna were part of the Society of Women Engineers, which engages girls in the community with science and engineering projects. Featuring expos, design challenges and mother/daughter days, it should be no surprise that the girls loved it. But, as Supriya relates on the Indigogo site, the girls’ passion wasn’t translating into future possibility: As the two were leading a workshop about invention, one 8-year-old girl was very excited about explosions – every suggestion she made included explosions. But when Janna asked the girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, her reply was “a fashion designer.” Bombarded, like most girls, with images and representations of women in fashion, she thought girls were better at fashion design.  

Supriya and Janna decided this was a problem that they might be able to solve: increasing girls’ options by exposure to diverse, strong role models via dolls, play and fun, valuable learning experiences.  

The first doll, chemist Marie Curie, was chosen for her brave and inspiring tale (it also didn’t hurt that Supriya and her parents are chemists). When Marie Curie was a child, girls were forbidden to study, so she had to pursue her education clandestinely; yet she became one of the greatest chemists of all time, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to ever win two Nobels in two sciences (chemistry and physics). Through the app that accompanies her doll, Marie will lead kids through hands-on chemistry and physics activities using common household items. These games help girls see that, like Marie, they too can be chemists.  

The second doll will be aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot; the third, Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who wrote the world’s first computer code. Campaign supporters will be able to vote for the fourth doll (here’s an early bid for first US woman doctor Elizabeth Blackwell!).    

Perhaps surprisingly, the Miss Possible dolls don’t represent the women in their successful, adult forms. They are little girls themselves. Supriya explained that they made this decision in order to make the role models more accessible to children: “It’s hard to look at these achievements and say, ‘I can do that.’ We want to show girls that these women started in the same place so they can say, ‘Marie Curie was once a little girl like me, so I can do this, too.’”

In case you need a refresher on the disparity between girls and boys in the STEM fields, the White House 2012 Snapshot on Gender Equity in Education shows that while girls tend to be evenly represented in high-school math and science classes (except for physics, in which girls are underrepresented), huge gaps persist when it comes to careers and secondary education: In 2009-2010, females made up less than 25% of participants in science, technology, engineering, and math programs nationally. In 2008-09, women earned only 31% of the degrees and certificates in STEM fields.  

Supriya points out that this is an issue that really matters. “When people in STEM fields are impacting all demographics,” she says, “then those demographics must be represented in STEM fields. The success of this campaign is evidence that people really care. We want to tell girls that they can make a difference in the world; they should understand what’s open to them, and see all of their options so they can pursue what they care about and enjoy most.”

What is so interesting and special about Miss Possible is how it contains so many game-changing elements in one package. Like GoldieBlox, it offers a fun entry point to science; like the new – and immediately sold-out – LEGOS Research Institute, it provides a visual representation of females in the STEM fields; and like the recently acclaimed Lammily doll, it’s a young girl doll and a fun alternative to the sexualized, pink-clad dolls that are increasingly becoming targets of criticism.  

I have a new niece, and before she is a year old, she will have a Marie Curie doll. That is not something I could have said a month ago. But thanks to Supriya Hobbs, Janna Eaves and Miss Possible dolls, this little girl will never not have a female chemist, aviator and programmer as part of her everyday fantasy experience.  

For so long, our society has been trying to tell girls they can be whatever they want while bombarding them with images and messages signaling the contrary, à la the “I Can Be...” Barbie.  But now – my niece can grow up knowing she might be the next Marie Curie. It is possible.