Building a foundation with GoldieBlox
Kjersti Kleine ’17 was sure she knew what a leader was, and that person wasn’t her. Or so the Cary, N.C., native thought before getting involved as a freshman with Furman’s Shucker Institute for Leadership (SLI).
“I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that leaders can come in all shapes and sizes,” Kleine says. “Originally coming into college I just thought that a leader was someone that was very outgoing, very loud, very enthusiastic, and I found that you can still be quiet, you can be shy, and you can still be a really good leader.”
Named in honor of Dr. Harry B. Shucker, Furman’s former vice president of student services, SLI is a two-year program “designed to foster the development of emerging student leaders.” The application process begins the summer before classes start, and once completed students become Shucker Leadership Fellows.
The goal is not to learn to be someone different.
“We begin to introduce the idea of pursuing passions. What are you interested in? What do you care about? Sometimes it aligns with their academic interests even,” says SLI director Kim Keefer. “A lot of being a good leader is knowing who you are and knowing what you’re like in a group, so we do a lot of self-exploration.”
That exploration culminates with a “passion project” to be completed as sophomores. Kleine, a health sciences major, Kate Causey ’17 (math) and Hayden Rudd ’17 (chemistry) realized theirs by looking at all of the male faces in their classes.
“As a girl who was good at math in high school, I was told I had a brain that worked like a boy. I was like, no, that’s not true,” Causey, a native of Birmingham, Ala., says. “Girls can be good at math too. So that was something that had been important to me for a while.”
Kleine had read about GoldieBlox, a line of building toys invented by Stanford graduate Debbie Sterling. GoldieBlox encourages young girls to play in such way that “bolsters confidence in spacial skills,” and the three decided to do their part to bring attention to the fact that the vast majority of engineers in the world are men.
Sterling, an engineer, asserts this is largely because society pushes females away from math and science fields virtually from birth. Gender-focused toys are an example.
“We wanted to somehow put on an event around campus about this issue,” Kleine said, and over several months the three organized a Cultural Life Program highlighting the issue. Working with advisor Lorraine DeJong, a Furman education professor, they secured a September date in the Watkins Room in the Trone Student Center while lining up a panel that included Furman psychology professor Erin Hahn, Ph.D., Serita Acker, director of Clemson University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) organization, and Lynn Mann, program director at Greenville’s A.J. Whittenberg Elementary, which features a school-wide engineering curriculum.
They had initially hoped to bring in Sterling herself but settled for her TED talk. Still, by all counts the program was a rousing success.
“It was a packed house. I was really impressed with how much publicity was around the event and the kind of audience they managed to draw,” Hahn, who specializes in cognitive development, said. “I wasn’t expecting the crowd that they had. In fact, it’s probably one of the largest audiences that I’ve ever talked in front of at Furman.”
Hahn agreed to participate after hearing the trio’s sales pitch, which consisted largely of zeal for a topic that is also close to her heart.
“Ideally we would have sort of gender-neutral toys that would appeal to both boys and girls, but a lot of the building toys that are out there right now are so geared toward boys that it’s not something girls are naturally drawn to,” Hahn says. “We’ve known for a long time in the education system that we don’t have nearly enough females in science, math, engineering fields, and that’s a real problem because there’s a lot of talent there. We’re just not encouraging and supporting women to pursue those kinds of careers. It’s a loss in human resources, not to mention unfair.”
Mann sees it first-hand from the moment girls start school.
“Children are really indoctrinated at an early age. These are girls clothes, these are boys clothes. These are girls toys, these are boys toys,” she says. “We shouldn’t then be surprised that they begin to internalize that there are girls careers and there are boys careers. We are really doing them a disservice.”
The project didn’t end with the CLP. An ice-cream social in front of the James B. Duke Library raised more than $400, which went to buy GoldieBlox toys that were donated to the Frazee Dream Center as well an after-school program in Greenville.
The teamwork required to pull off a complex venture changed all of three of them forever.
“We figured out early on that some of us were better at reaching out to speakers and communicating what we wanted from the event while other people were better at the logistical aspect of booking rooms and planning things like that,” Kleine says. “We delegated the work really well, but that did take a little while to figure out.”
That’s music to Keefer’s ears.
“If they come through this program, they leave absolutely knowing their strengths. They can talk experientially about how those show up in their lives, and they know how to make decisions and choices around their strengths,” she says. “We don’t give them a definition of leadership. We try to inspire.”