by Seila Rizvic

Limor Fried is an MIT graduate and engineer and the head of Adafruit Industries. Her goal is to empower a growing subculture of “makers” (do-it-yourself technology hackers and builders) with products and resources to facilitate their projects. Fried has been featured in The New York Times, Businessweek, Forbes and even graced the cover of Wired Magazine. Currently, she is turning her attention to the LEGO controversy and offering a solution to girls who were not satisfied by LEGO’s latest attempt to appeal to a young female audience. Rather than the puppies and beauty salons presented by LEGO’s Friends line, Fried has envisioned and brought to life a miniature version of the kind of workshop she herself works in. In the following interview she discusses the responses she’s gotten to her product, the future of girls in STEM fields, and what you can do to support her project.

Tell us a little bit about what motivated you to create this LEGO set. Why should people vote for your design?

Imagine a young kid getting a LEGO set that has modern “maker tools” like 3D printers, laser cutters, pick-and-place machines and knowing that(‘s a) real career and real thing they can do. That’s the biggest motivation, I think boys are usually exposed and encouraged more frequently for engineering. For example, the Girl Scouts do not have a robotics badge, but the Boy Scouts do. So when I saw some of the LEGO controversies recently about LEGO for girls, I thought I could help create an example of something I’d like to see if I was a little girl again.

At Adafruit we have my workshop, made from LEGO, it’s “Ladyada’s workshop” but it’s also been called a “Hackerspace”. We took some photos and submitted it to LEGO’s CUUSOO site. If we get 10,000 votes LEGO will consider making it a real LEGO set!

Vote Here!

We’re up to about 1,800+ votes, so this is where I need everyone’s help. After you log in to the site, you can support it and so far we’ve been climbing up the charts.

How does your LEGO set compare to the Friends LEGO set released earlier this year?

I wanted to show that a LEGO set could be based on someone and something real. My workshop (also sometimes called a hackerspace) is a real company, run by a real female engineer with real tools and equipment I use each day. I thought it would be fun to have a LEGO set that young girls could imagine themselves in, and wanting to shrink down to LEGO size to use all the cool tools.

How have parents responded to your idea so far? How have kids responded?

The parents AND the kids want to buy them immediately! A lot of parents really want to show their daughters that there are women engineers, but they don’t have many examples to point to. That’s that feedback I heard the most. In addition to the LEGO efforts, I do weekly live video show called “Ask An Engineer ” where anyone can watch it live over the internet and they can ask questions. I also have guests who usually just happen to be female engineers too. A parent emailed us and said, “Dear Limor, my daughter asked me if boys do engineering too.” That’s an interesting and new world his daughter is growing up in, one where women are engineering, or at least being seen more as engineers.

Other than designing awesome building sets for girls like your design offers, what else should we be doing to inspire girls to go into design and engineering fields?

Celebrating all the women in the world of science and engineering. It sounds like an easy thing to do but each year I think women are overlooked. It’s partly a culture challenge, when there are news programs or television shows that have engineers, they’re usually males – our job is to get out there and show there’s diversity of people and careers in the world of engineering. It’s not just electronics, it’s bio-tech, industrial design and more. It’s not just about getting boys and girls interested, it’s about making engineering something our society values. One of my favorite quotes is from Dean Kamen who founded the FIRST robotics competitions, he said, “We are what we celebrate.” Things are getting better, but it’s still rare to see a women engineer as something a young girl can be exposed to so she can consider it as a career.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the importance of getting girls to consider jobs in STEM fields. As a girl who does work in a STEM field, what is your perspective on this issue?

I think our biggest challenge is find that magic spark in any kid for them to consider a career in science. There are lots of ways to do this, I do this by making electronic kits for kids to build. One of them turns off TVs; now this is a little prank-ish, but it’s the hook that gets kids soldering and thinking about the way electronics work. So I think we need to be creative and not just tell kids that it’s a good thing, they should explore and learn through making that it’s actually a lot of fun. Taking kids to places like Maker Faire or local hackerspaces is another good start too.

What role do you see girls playing in the future of engineering/open source hardware making? How will girls’ participation change this future?

One of the greatest things about open-source hardware is many of the leaders of this movement are women. Ayah Bdeir is the founder or littleBits, an open-source hardware company that makes electronics for kids to learn, she also co-founded the Open Hardware Summit with Alicia Gibb, formerly of Bug Labs (an OSHW company) and now she is the president of the new Open Source Hardware Association. I think as with many other industries, we’ll see more and more women not only being part of it, but leading.

What’s something that girls can do right now to learn more about building electronics?

My site has a ton of free tutorials I made for people of all ages. I also put together a list of resources for educators.

Two of my favorite resources are Young Maker from MAKE magazine and Howtoons.

Don’t forget to vote for Limor’s LEGO design! Sign in here!