Ask Dr Karen


The Best Toys for this Holiday Season

Most parents haven’t got any idea how to get their girls interested in STEM but want these opportunities for their daughters.  Oftentimes, their approaches end up being viewed as trying to stuff the science in their child’s face. This typically drives girls even further from STEM.

Start by asking, “What does your daughter like and what does she do in her free time?”

Parents usually miss the connection between what their child’s interests actually are and that parents themselves can strengthen those interests by making links to STEM related fields. The two are not mutually exclusive, as most of the general public currently believes.

For instance, a girl can like fashion and dressing up dolls. Using patterns and artistic abilities, she can learn how to think like a mechanical engineer, determining how pieces of materials can be put together to fit around an object or even making new materials out of recycled items. The artistic abilities, imagination, and the comfort level to always ask questions are key to innovation. These are the true metrics of a budding engineer or scientist.

Filtering youth at a young age by how well they did on their last math test or the mythical requirement that they must be in the top of their class is devastating to a child’s potential. Children trust their parents and teachers to help guide them, yet if parents, educators, and guidance counselors don’t understand what engineers and scientists do, how will their children ever learn about these opportunities?

Now about the toys:

Turn on the TV and you will see that youth are bombarded with very gender specific toys. Girls get the toy puppies and dolls that poop and boys get the robotics and intricate figurines that can be manipulated to hone the boys’ mechanical skills.

Toys that are gender “neutral” — that is, toys that appeal to both boys and girls — are helping to break down the separation in early childhood development that enables boys to move on into STEM while stifling girls to advance. This separation is the key reason girls lack STEM confidence when they reach high school and college. They feel left behind and not smart enough to catch up.

There are physical toys that help build design skills, mechanical skills (Lego Duplo, Lego Friends (now if the Lego stores would only catch up and take notice that their window displays aren’t grabbing girls), flying fairies, or wireless controlled robotics that learn behaviors or accept voice commands (like Sphero), and archery (Nerf Rebelle), which I believe is a first for Nerf to open up the market for girl oriented toys. Software based toys and mobile apps are also breaking down the gender divide. A young girl can use a tablet to design or simulate a city or roller coaster like many girls do in the IEEE Future cities competition. IEEE uses the well-known SimCity software. Getting girls involved in technology early removes the intimidation factor of navigating and using electronic computing technology.

For younger children, there are apps to help strengthen math skills like Umizoomi.  Games that allow girls to write their own animations to tell their own stories and interact with stories their friends create too.  Wearable electronics (like the digital Barbie with an LED dress you can design) are all a step in the right direction. Lighted connecting links allow all kids to design new colorful structures. Girls are not usually enticed by kits that build an “alarm” using wires, switches and batteries with the goal of teaching them electric circuits, like the ones I was subjected too when I was a kid.

Some parents tell me that their daughters used to enjoy going on to Facebook or creating webpages, but as they grew, their interests ended up narrowing into more marketing  applications using PowerPoint and using only the social aspects of the internet.

I investigated one instance of this and found that a young girl’s STEM class was being taught by an educator who had no STEM education, but the teacher did have good intentions. The teacher considered engineering to be designing a presentation with graphics and the fact that  the class was using technology to do it, qualified as teaching STEM literacy. My former Nerd Girls and I reached out to help design a more robust curriculum and to use projects that were non-intimidating to both the instructors and the students. We start by using the and websites.

Hopefully, as toy companies and software companies realize that girls make up more than 50% of the market, and that parents are more willing to purchase a toy that actually helps build STEM skills, perhaps more emphasis will be placed on designing more of these toys that appeal to girls too. Imagination is the only skill that really matters for building future STEM leaders and we need more toys that tell everyone that.


The Best Children’s Cartoons for Teaching STEM, STEAM, and other good stuff!

The most commonly asked question I get asked on “Ask Dr. Karen” is “How do I get my kid into math and science?”

Never in all my years would I have even considered saying, “Turn on the TV.”

The media has not been kind to strong female role models and the majority of today’s cartoons targeted at girls still have a long way to go.  However, cartoons that are trying to reach both boys and girls are having an impact on young girls because some of these shows creators are starting to use “gender equitizers” on their shows. Yes, I made up this word! I will define it as someone with a brain who is actually thinking about making the content and characters of the product appealing to every child.

With that said, it’s time to applaud the cartoons that are making an impact and give them some constructive feedback. I will separate the list into those cartoons that teach STEM and those in the Arts.

STEM Cartoons:

  1. Best Science: Octonauts, Disney Junior
  2. Nerd Girls Choice Award: Doc McStuffins, Disney Junior
  3. Best Math: Umizoomi, Nickelodeon
  4. Best Team Player Problem Solving: Paw Patrol, Nickelodeon
  5. Best Zoology: Bubble Guppies, Nickelodeon
  6. Best Engineering: Blaze and the Monster Machines, Nickelodeon

Arts Cartoons:

  1. Gold Medal of Pure Awesomeness: Wallykazam!, Nickelodeon
  2. Best Music and Arts Education: Little Einsteins, Disney Junior

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Honorable Mention for Critical Thinking Skills: Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Disney Junior
  2. Honorable Mention for technology and space education:  Miles From Tomorrowland, Disney Junior.

Here’s Why:

Best Science: Octonauts (Disney Junior). Octonauts is based off of the books by written by Vicki Wong and Michael C. Murphy. It teaches kids about creatures living in the oceans and other water ways. Every episode ends with a “creature report”, where the characteristics of the creature learned about is reviewed and images and short videos of the real creatures are shown. Future Jacque Cousteaus will love it. For those of you who don’t know who Jacque Cousteau was, he was a famous oceanographer and sea explorer aboard his famous ship, the Calypso.

Nerd Girls Choice Award: Doc McStuffins (Disney Junior). Hurray for the first show that features a young girl of color as an aspiring doctor. Doc McStuffins is a bright young girl who fixes toys. This show’s gender equitizer gets an A+ for using toys as the main characters so that the characters are appealing to both boys and girls. The girl’s mom is also a doctor and she has a caring dad who is deeply involved in her life. Finally, a show that dispels stereotypes and family roles in one swoop.

Best Math: Umizoomi (Nickelodeon). This show tries to blend using real kids who interact with the cartoon characters. Their robot’s “belly belly screen” serves as the monitor to interact with the real characters. My only wish is that the creators would modify the “crazy shake” song, which is the victory “Hotdog Dance” song of this show. Please remove the screams of the little girl in the song. If your kid is listening to this while you are driving, you may slam on the brakes thinking you are about to run something over, like a kid.

Best Team Player Problem Solving: Paw Patrol (Nickelodeon). Ok, who doesn’t like puppies? And what 10 year old boy doesn’t want his own look-out and garage, complete with car lift?  I know adults that still dream of having these things.

This show using talking puppies, each having a unique skillset in  the areas of construction, recycling, organization/safety, fire prevention, flight, navigation, and wilderness survival. This team works together to identify problems and find solutions using teamwork. They work with turbines to create wind energy and saving the environment as well as the critters in it. This show can rank even higher if they realized that the character Rocky, the recycling pup, is REALLY doing ENGINEERING!  He’s showing all the great traits of a mechanical engineer. Second, the show uses a lot of trains in it, which is great. The downside is the person driving the train is “the Engineer”.  This is what most kids think of when they hear the word engineer.

Dr. Karen will be happy to write you an episode where the pups learn that each one of them has some engineering skills and that the driver of the train is different than the engineer using STEM skills. For instance, Skye, the original lone female pup on the team, flies a helicopter. She has to know about aeronautics. She’s an aeronautical engineer. Rubble is exhibiting skills that would make him either a great civil engineer, mechanical engineer or even a computer engineer specializing in robotics. Rocky the recycling pup has the traits of a mechanical engineer, and yes, even clumsy Marshall, the fire pup is exhibiting the traits of a real field of fire engineering!

For my payment, I will need to be animated so I can forever be immortalized in a shiny pink outfit and have my character give Katie, the female pet shop groomer on the show, a pep talk to get her to go into veterinary studies.

Paw Patrol promotes teamwork and encouragement, so I was excited to see the lone female of the team being valued equally on this talented group of pups. Fast forward to the merchandising of this show’s products. I bought a toddler t-shirt for my 2 year old and was devastated that the female pup on the team WAS NOT on the team shirt!!!!  She’s not on the bedding products either.

A team is a team and having one pink pup on a kid’s t-shirt along with the entire team will not prevent a kid from wearing it.  Or was it the parents they were worried about?  If you want to find products featuring the female pup, you can get just her alone on clothing, but not with the team.

The show has the potential to break down gender barriers, but they need to better coordinate their merchandising with the show’s gender equitizer.  Incidentally, the female character merchandise is always sold out and the show’s creators have realized that one lone female pup on the team really wasn’t enough.  All of us at Nerd Girls could have told them this at the very beginning!

Subsequently, the show has added another female character “Everest”, a wilderness rescue pup.

The first release of the mobile app seemed a bit rushed and didn’t really “teach” anything.  The revisions seem to be improving, but still not yet at the same caliber of the Umizoomi, Bubble Guppies or Wallykazam! mobile apps.

Best Zoology: Bubble Guppies (Nickelodeon). This show is so colorful and fun. The characters learn about animals and their habitats. The music comes in a close second to the music in WallyKazam. The app version of the show is well worth the purchase too.

Best Engineering: Blaze and the Monster Machines (Nickelodeon). My favorite line from this show and the mobile app comes from the bad guy, Crusher, who says, “I am going to win because I am going to cheat!”  I think of this every time I encounter an individual at work that does something unethical or underhanded.

Of course, the bad guy never wins in the show.  Too bad, in real life, things don’t work out the same way.

Anyway, the show enforces playing by the rules and using engineering to solve problems. Blaze can adapt his shape to help out with the situation at hand such as to grow wings to fly and flotation devices to go into water  among many other cool things. The animation shows the wireframes of the adaptations before rendering them, so this is really cool. Kids get to see some intermediate Computer Aided Design (CAD) and modeling steps.  A great way to inspire future civil engineers interested in structures, computer scientists, computer engineers and animators.

Gold Medal of Pure Awesomeness: Wallykazam! (Nickelodeon). I award the “Dr. Karen Gold Medal” for pure Awesomeness to Nickelodeon’s WallyKazam. This show teaches kids how to read.  It has some of the best animations, music, and creative writing on television. You will actually enjoy singing these songs with your kids. This is the most effective reading program on television. It follows the Dr. Karen mantra of “not trying to stuff the material down your kid’s throats” approach. It incorporates great techniques to get your kid into the bathtub, and how to calm them down when they are upset like a “Chickefant”, which is a cross between a chicken and an elephant. The special guest voices like the “underpants” wizard, played by Weird Al or the Goblin, who takes the  Jingle Troll’s bag of wishes and is granted the great singing voice of Tony Bennett, are a bonus for grown-ups that are watching these shows too.

Dr. Karen’s tip: an old-fashioned hot water bottle can be used to simulate a “bag of wishes” when you want to grant your little one a wish for being good.

We also recommend the mobile app game version of the show.

Best Music and Arts Education: Little Einsteins (Disney Junior). This show is quite innovative. It not only has appeal to kids, but adults can learn from it as well. They use classical music, highlight famous composers and use famous artwork as the back drop for many of the team’s adventures. Each episode recaps and applauds the artists, composers and other famous historic figures.

Honorable Mention for Critical Thinking Skills: Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (Disney Junior). Mickey and the gang go on adventures and learn the colors of the rainbow, shapes and how to use critical thinking to use the right tool to get the job done.  This show is truly appealing to the youngest of viewers.  Dr. Karen has one issue that the “Professor “ Character on the show is male, old, balding and wearing a lab coat. While he may be one of the original Disney portrayals of a professor characters, it is time for Disney to break the stereotypical portrayal of what Professors look like. She is a cool Nerd Girl!

Honorable Mention for Technology and Space Education: Miles From Tomorrowland (Disney Junior). Miles is a young boy who explores space with his family. He is sort of the equivalent of the “Will Robinson” character of the Lost in Space TV series, for those of you who are old TV show buffs. In this version, Miles’ mom Phoebe Calisto is the captain of the ship, his dad Leo is the engineer, and his sister Loretta is the genius scientist. Miles’ best pal is his robotic ostrich, MERC, (Mechanical Emotional Response Creature). The show discusses inferred sensors and black holes and could be well on its way to helping kids understand much more about technology and engineering. Experiments fail and Miles tries again, just like a true engineer. He also exhibits great character by helping his friends by his leadership, team building and selflessness.

Nerd Girls will be watching to see how this show progresses in future seasons!

Meet Dr. Karen

Question from a new site visitor:

Who is Dr. Karen and why should I ask her advice?

Answered by Dr K on December 19, 2012:

What does an engineer actually do?

Are groups promoting women excluding the guys?

Question from Alex:

Hi my name is Alex and I’m male. I heard about Nerd Girls from your interview on the BBC World News. I wonder what value there is to a group dedicated to isolating scientifically affluent men from same-said women? I am a nerd. I adore smart and capable women: Danica McKellar, Madeline L’Engle, Marie Curie, Hypatia… See, I can name some. Madeline L’Engle encouraged me to develop my “impossible” tesseract models. Doesn’t the future intellect of our species require that these people get together and have Bach-like children as a way to demonstrate to the ashamed or closet nerd that it’s all right and that together we can reinvent our own species as a better, brighter being than any non-scientifically based culture in our world’s history has ever imagined for their future, let alone what they produced? I can meet nerdy and dweeby guys all day, every day; but, for some reason, nerdy women don’t seem to run in, or even near, the same circles as nerdy men. Do nerdy women “turn off” when a nerdy man is around, or something like that? By the way, the term “girls” to refer to “women” is overtly condescending and makes them lesser beings in their own minds. Adults who think of themselves as “girls” and “boys” are not nearly as powerful and capable as they who consider themselves to be “men” and “women”.

Answered by Dr K on February 03, 2012:

Boy oh Boy! You DO have lots of questions. So here I present LOTS of answers! First of all, we don’t isolate anyone from joining nerd girls! We have guys who declare themselves Nerd Girl supporters and want to help the cause. Some of our self declared “Nerd Boys” and “Nerd Guys” even wrote our hip-hop theme song and join our projects. One third of our members are men who have female friends, daughters, wives, sisters and mothers who all want to know what they can do and how they can show support and encourage their friends and loved ones to stick with their dreams. We are about community and empowering girls and women. We strongly believe that engaging 1/2 the population ( i.e., only women) is not going to change global social attitudes. It takes everyone’s support. Back when women wanted to vote in the U.S., of course they gathered women supporters, but they also had men behind them pushing for the cause, and no doubt, that made a huge difference. If you look at some TV shows and you see women clamoring around a single guy to vie to be his trophy or shallow women only focusing in on how important her physical beauty is, what message does this send to everyone? Boys lose respect for their female peers and girls think this is what is expected of them to be socially acceptable. Our resources are about providing youth, young women, parents and educators with a community that includes the tools, role models and education to inspire youth to pursue math, science, technology and engineering. Yesterday, my nerd girl team and I met with over 300 Girl Scouts at an event called “Math Moves You”. The girls, (who were ages 8-11) were so inspired to see that girls just like them are doing incredible things. It showed that anyone can express their own individuality through their creative passions and that this creativity is what is important, not the grade they get on a math test! Now about your comment stating “I can meet nerdy and dweeby guys all day, every day; but, for some reason, nerdy women don’t seem to run in, or even near, the same circles as nerdy men.” Hmm, I do see them interacting at all levels but I do see a huge social stigma keeping women out. One of my nerd girls was recently told by one of the guys she worked with that “The uglier the woman, the better the science”….. Another was told, “she’s too pretty to go into engineering and should go into marketing.” he was an intern with her at a prestigious engineering company here in the education capitol of the U.S., Boston, MA. I was even cyber scolded after the airing of the “TODAY SHOW” where I was accused of casting “pretty girls to pretend” to be engineers. Those girls were all my former students and have made tremendous contributions to society. Do you now see what I mean by needing to get everyone on board including men and women in order to make greater social change to accept and promote women? Your next question: Do nerdy women “turn off” when a nerdy man is around, or something like that? Not at all. Most of the students I have graduated have ended up dating/marrying another “nerd”. They enjoy being able to have intellectual conversations with them and grew to be friends first through school, work and now the big one: meeting at ballroom dancing or “Nerd country line dancing”. This is where singles, who proclaim they have “2 left feet”, get together to dance and learn together in a friendly non-intimidating environment. I can tell you though that guys/women that “ travel in packs” can make it uncomfortable for someone to approach one individual out of the pack. I need more data on this one before I can infer anything more. Now, let’s talk about your issue with “girls to refer to women” I have heard this comment before, but saying “Nerd Women” doesn’t work for the thousands of youth (boys and girls) we outreach too. Adult women still go hang out with female friends and do call them “Girlfriends” and when I first started the program, I asked my young adult women students if they had a problem with being called Nerd Girls. They love the term and feel it’s an honor to be a nerd girl…..and so do the thousands of professional women and college students that have joined Nerd Girls and proudly proclaim themselves as Nerd Girls. Oh and an FYI: Danica McKellar is a HUGE supporter of the Nerd Girls and was interviewed in the IEEE WIE magazine, which I am editor-in-chief!

What is the difference between an Environmental Scientist versus an Environmental Engineer?

Question from Maggie:

My name is Maggie and I am a prospective College student. My mentor had emailed you and suggested that I get in touch with you as well. I am interested in Environmental Engineering and was hoping you could give me a bit more insight into what that encompasses and how it would differ from an Environmental Science major. I also checked out your Nerd Girls website. Who knew a Nerd Girls website could distract me for an hour? It is so cool and I think the work you and others have done is extremely impressive. Thank you so much for your time! A proud nerd, Maggie

Answered by Dr K on February 03, 2012:

Hi Maggie! I think it is great that you have someone mentoring you. I would have answered your email even if you are not a prospective engineering student. I just want all young women to go for their dreams regardless of their major! Anything “engineering” is about finding innovative solutions to problems to help people or the environment. Environmental science tries to understand the environment and investigate cause-effect relationships. Now, engineering does this too, but the entire goal is to develop new methods, approaches or technology that solves some issue or helps scientists make new discoveries.Let me give you an example. Did you know that NASA used to use the space shuttle missions to “observe the earth” The missions were called Earth observing systems and they found out some very interesting things. One of them found that fish in Australia were getting Cancer and that this was where the ozone layer was the most depleted. They made the discovery, but how did they measure this and figure it out? Engineering! The imaging technology and the visualization technology took monstrous amounts of numerical data and transformed it into pictures and scientists can now use these images (instead of the tons of numbers) to quickly see trends and make connections. They also found water supplies in the deserts too, using this technology to help people affected with droughts.Another mission examined the effect of “burning” (Forrest fires, industrial burning etc) and pollutants in the atmosphere. I would like to introduce you to one of our official Nerd Girls, Michie who is in Environmental Engineering at Colombia! She can definitely tell you more about her experiences. She is working on weather warning systems for places like Haiti and using renewable energy to power the low-cost devices. If you say it’s ok, I’ll send her your email so she can write to you. Thanks for your question and keep us posted on what major you decide on!

Math team star or “brain-waver”?

Question from Chrissy:

I am on the math team and we have made it to the state finals! The problem is that my star athlete boyfriend says that I am embarrassing him by being a “brain waver.” Can you help me? Thank you, Chrissy.

Answered by Dr K on June 27, 2011:

Oooooh, my first reaction is to kick his butt to the curb, but we need to rescue him from his old decrepit man mentality. First of all, I looked up his team record and while I’m not a sports fanatic (except for wrestling), I know losing all but one game is not considered a great season. Now, you would never say you were embarrassed by him being on “a not so stellar team” would you? Or tell him to quit the team? Of course not! Even if his team was winning, it’s understood that a team is just that, a team. With a team comes wins and losses. What he is failing to recognize is that you are on a team too.  You have a role and a commitment to your teammates just like any other team. Anyone on a team should value that.  The other thing he is confused about is that he thinks being an intelligent woman is a bad thing. Is it because he is in competition with you and is bothered that you are smarter than him? A good relationship is one where the person with you makes you stronger, is proud of your accomplishments and wants you to be successful at the things that interest you. I can’t tell you how many famous successful people have told me that their partners kept telling them to get real and give up on their dreams. Insecure people react like this sometimes because they are afraid of seeing their partner grow, become successful and move into new circles of friends. This makes them feel they will be left behind. Sadly, by acting this way, they are pretty much ensuring they are. Consider what would happen if you did quit the team. How would you feel that you gave up something that you liked and were proud of? How would your teammates feel that you dumped them? What about your future dreams? If you want to go on to college, having something as incredible as being on the math team puts you at a huge advantage, not to mention the scholarship opportunities. Most mature guys understand that an intelligent woman means that she is going to be successful, make lots of her own money so that it’s not all about her being with him just so he can buy her stuff. A good relationship really takes both of you to be a team too. The success of that team depends on how well you work off of each other’s strengths and how much you support each other as each other’s coach.  A good coach won’t tell you to lose or to give up. You need to talk to him about and figure out for yourself, whether he is even on your team. Comment here (1)

How can I get work experience?

Question from Tina:

How can I get work experience, when everyone only wants to hire someone with work experience? I don’t have any real technology jobs on my resume. How can I possibly get an internship? Thanks, Tina

Answered by Dr K on June 24, 2011:

Tina wow! It is great that you are thinking about getting an internship and actually HAVE a resume. Having a good resume is the first step and it should talk about the skills and assets that you have to offer. It should focus on the skills that are the most important for the particular company you are applying to. This means you have to have different versions of resumes….yes, this is yucky and means more work but people are going to definitely respond better to someone that has a resume where it is evident the applicant spent effort in developing their presentation. Companies care about what courses you are taking, what you do for volunteer work and of course, your interest and knowledge about them. Resumes that get attention are the ones that have a clue of what their company does rather than a resume that appears to just be a broadcast spam. Remember why companies are hiring interns. They are hoping to get a test drive on candidate that if they like, they can hire later for a full time position and reduce the ramp-up time on training them. If they hire a full time person and the person doesn’t work out, it’s pretty tough and complicated to dump them. Internships last 8-10 weeks and there’s no obligation for a long term commitment…..hmmm sounds like being in a bad relationship with someone who won’t commit! However, in this case, it really works out well for both parties. After the internship, you get something to put on your resume, such as new skills, new professional references and hopefully an idea of what you like or don’t like and perhaps some focus on where you want to move to next. The company gets exposure, and first dibs on trying to recruit you back for either the next year or for a full time job. So, now let’s answer the real question. How do you get that internship once you have a solid resume (with NO spelling mistakes!!!!). The next step is you become a researcher. You find companies in your commute area. If there’s no form of transportation to get you there, then don’t bother wasting your time or theirs. Don’t just go for companies that you have heard of because that’s too limiting. Do the search, visit their websites and see what they do. If there’s no mention of formal internships, send an email introducing yourself and asking if they have internship opportunities. Try to find a real contact name.  Don’t assume that the contact person is a “Dear Sir”, that’s a wicked turn off.  I actually answer those inquiries by telling the person that I am not a guy and warn them to do their research better in future attempts. Most people will just delete these immediately especially if you say “Dear Sir, I really want to work at your XYZ company.” Yet, you filled in the incorrect company name because you forgot to change it during your massive edits and email blasts. Check out a company’s social mission. A lot of companies do outreach and community service projects with their employees and hold events that is open to the public. Offer to volunteer at these events. This is a great way to connect personally with individuals that are employees of that company, and find out more about what they do. Ultimately, you will network with people that can perhaps get a resume and a good word in for you. Many companies require you fill out on-line applications before they will even consider you. Go ahead and do this but the story doesn’t end there. What will distinguish you from all the other candidates? Participating in outreach with younger kids is always an incredible experience for them and for you. Kids have parents, parents have jobs and this can be an awesome network for you to get your internship.  So, even if your coaching kiddie cheerleading, or soccer or dance or tutoring in your community, you will get to meet the parents and find out more about career opportunities and companies in your community. Of course, this means you have to be nice to the kids and can’t just volunteer with the intent of finding yourself a job. Showing up on time, being prepared and enthusiastic about what you do shines through and these are the most valuable assets anyone can have. Good Luck and let us know how the job search goes.