Earth and space scientists: You’ve just been immortalized in LEGO® toys.

In early August, geoscientist Ellen Kooijman’s design of miniature female scientists sold out in the first few weeks after going on sale publicly. The kit with her figurines is currently ­back-​­ordered, with more in production.

In 2012, Kooijman spent 4 months building and tweaking figurines—including the series of three female scientists—in her spare time. She gathered 10,000 supporters for the designs that she submitted to LEGO® Ideas, a program facilitated by the toy maker to suggest new products and projects. She designed 13 figures with accompanying vignettes in various career fields. The three that were chosen are a paleontologist, a chemist, and an astronomer, each depicted working in her respective lab complete with a dinosaur skeleton, test tubes, and a telescope. These three became the LEGO® Research Institute set.

The main goal of the project was to “appeal to a different market and get more girls—and boys—interested in building with LEGO® bricks,” said Kooijman, a senior researcher in the Department of Geosciences at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. “I’m very happy the product is such a big success.”

Other figurines included a judge, a mail carrier, and a firefighter. Her designs were then voted on by the public, with the paleontologist being the most popular of her figures.

“I started with designs close to my own profession, so the first figures I designed were a geologist in a field setting and a geochemist in a lab. When it became clear that the idea was very popular, I expanded the project to include other scientists and other professions,” she explained to Eos.

Depicting Women in Professional Jobs

A letter written in January 2014 by a ­7-year-​old girl addressed to LEGO® became media fodder when she complained that there were more LEGO® sets with male characters dressed for their careers and very few female characters in general, with fewer still depicted in professional settings.

“All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs,” the little girl, Charlotte Benjamin, wrote. “But the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs. I want you to make more LEGO girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun.”

Kooijman admits that she also “observed a scarcity” of female characters with professions in products available from LEGO®, adding that she “immediately decided to post a project with female mini figures in interesting professions.” However, Kooijman stressed that fields in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) should be gender neutral.

“It should be clear that it is perfectly normal for women to pursue a career in STEM,” she said. “Gender should not be relevant in science. Therefore, the official set description doesn’t make any mention of the fact [that] the figures are female. It focuses on the fact [that] they are scientists.”

The new toy set comes with a booklet describing each profession. Kooijman, who became interested in astronomy as a child after visiting a planetarium, said she wants kids to have a lot of fun building the set and playing with the characters.

“I hope they will learn a bit about the different sciences,” she said. “It would be great if the set would inspire children to pursue an academic career.”

—Tricia McCarter, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.