Take Cinderella, for example; a staple in every little girl’s library. There are also Cinderella costumes and other kinds of princess toys marketed towards little girls in just about every major retail chain. How do we, as parents, ensure our daughters live up to their genuine potential if most toys nowadays are geared towards an unrealistic, fairytale image? Through the creative introduction of engineering into the games we give them and the stories we tell them.
The story of Cinderella has a history dating to the 9th century and involves the fundamental plot of determining the wearer of a shoe who will become a princess. Let us also presume this princess will promote math, technology, and science unrelentingly in the educational system. Well, we can hope, right?
Cinderella’s iconic glass slipper involves more than just being unforgivingly uncomfortable. Biomechanics, the study of the structure and function of biological systems using engineering sciences, is an integral part of designing any shoe from the ground up. Literally.
Biomechanists study the complex forces that act on the body and they also evaluate human kinetics, the study of motion and its causes. By applying mathematical, mechanical, and engineering principles, which include measuring forces underneath the foot and calculating which muscles create which movements, as well as taking factors like shock absorption, flexibility, traction, and the wearer’s weight into consideration, a shoe is created.
Engineering more comfortable footwear may not be what this little girl’s fairytale is all about, but why can’t it be? It certainly doesn’t have to be all about buying pink dresses and tiaras for our female progeny. After all, our daughters are more likely to land a job as an engineer than as a princess.
Disney recently based a movie on the 17th century fairy tale, Rapunzel, and is promoting numerous “girly” toys to complement the princess aspect of that story. How many dolls with hair that can be combed and styled do our little girls really need? More importantly, what kind of message are we imposing upon our daughters by inundating them with these kinds of gender specific toys?
Rapunzel was a young lady who braided her long hair so that it could be climbed by a witch and a prince who wished to gain access to the tower in which she was locked. And just how realistic a tale is Rapunzel? Well, one strand of healthy hair can support up to about 3 ounces before breaking, meaning the average head of hair could conceivably hold up to twelve tons.
The branch of medicine that deals with the scientific study of the health of hair is called Trichology. When hair stretches prior to breaking, it goes into what experts call the "yield region" wherein the percentage of the stretching is proportional to the weight of the load applied to the hair. And wet hair actually stretches more than twice as much as dry hair. So, if the prince were to visit Rapunzel on a dry, sunny day, would it have taken him half as long to climb her hair as it would if he climbed it on a rainy day?
The moral of this tale is to encourage girls, both through play and through the reading of these fairytales, that science, math, and technology are involved in every aspect of our lives, even when we don’t suspect any possible link. Why especially girls? Because girls’ interest in the sciences typically wane for various reasons once they start middle school. Since parents are the ones who usually retell these tales and purchase their children’s toys, why not integrate a mathematical equation into each story or buy toys that encourage engineering?
We teach our children as soon as they are born, presenting them with opportunities and suggestions as to who they can be and what they can achieve. So we can offer them more than just a tale that tells girls they have to be saved or a toy that promotes a perceived prettiness. We can offer toys and books that have a mathematical or scientific message; products that promote the principles that will garner them a job in our technologically advanced future. We can read a story or buy a game that teaches a skill which will eventually allow our daughters to engineer specialized footwear for astronauts and the disabled or determine scientific uses for the incredible tensile strength of the human hair.
It doesn’t sound like much of a fairytale after all; does it?