Engineer Role Models—real and toy

Agogino photo
Mechanical engineer Alice Agogino is not anti-Barbie, by any means. Growing up she liked Barbie dolls, and they inspired her to design and sew her own clothes as a teenager. That hobby gave her tools she would later put to good use as an engineer. So it’s not surprising that when the National Academy of Engineering asked for input to help Mattel designers equip a new Computer Engineer Barbie®, Agogino rose to the challenge. 

She helped craft the iconic doll’s new “geek chic” in the form of Barbie’s portable computer for work on the go, Bluetooth headset for communicating in the field, and T-shirt decorated with binary code (plus binary games to go with them).

As a UC Berkeley engineering professor, designing toy role models while serving as a real-life role model is all in a day’s work for Agogino. She was recently honored with the Lifetime Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She sees engineering, like teaching, as a very human-oriented endeavor.

“To design anything for people, not for machines or robots, means understanding where people are coming from, what their needs are and what form of technology is going to be appropriate and work for them in their community,” she observes.

Agogino has also been an advisor for from the project’s inception. How fitting that Barbie is once again on the STEM scene in the Barbie Bungee activity, from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). This time Barbie is an extreme sports enthusiast, as learners engineer a bungee jump apparatus for her using just rubber bands.

In the Barbie Bungee math and design activity, the distance Barbie (any Barbie) falls is directly proportional to the number of rubber bands used, and the bungee context is used to help learners examine linear functions. If a Computer-Engineer Barbie® is also on hand (or sufficiently recovered from being bungeed), perhaps she can be enlisted to analyze the experimental data.