Maia Weinstock is a science editor, writer and media producer. She is the deputy editor at MIT News, the news office of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Maia is a strong advocate for girls and women, who is internationally known for her LEGO projects including Scitweeps, a collection of scientist minifigures, and the Legal Justice League, a set featuring the women of the US Supreme Court, and most recently, Women of NASA, which is set to go into production in late 2017 or early 2018.
“…Many people have asked why certain individuals aren’t included in the set … I wanted it to be a diverse group of women, both in terms of areas of specialty, eras, contributions for NASA, cultural background, and ages. I also wanted to highlight both well-known individuals and individuals that fewer people have heard of…”
Becoming a champion of gender equality through the medium of Lego
My main career is as a science editor and writer; I’ve been doing that, for both adult and children’s audiences, since 1999. I’ve been creating LEGO minifigures of living – and sometimes historical – scientists and engineers since late 2009, when I decided to try my hand at custom-designing one for my friend Carolyn Porco, who is a planetary scientist.
I hadn’t played with LEGO since I was a kid, and I had no idea how to go about creating custom figures. But when I met up with Carolyn and presented her with her minifigure she loved it, and I decided to make more. I originally only chose individuals who are on Twitter, so that people could connect the photos to real-life practicing scientists, to help the public better appreciate that scientists are often superheroes, and they should be more widely known.
Observations of the LEGO universe
I started writing about what I was seeing in the LEGO universe a few years ago, and I broke the story about the first female lab scientist officially released by LEGO, which was in 2013. That really helped to open the door to discussions on social and more traditional media about the presence of STEM women in the LEGO world.
I was also a big supporter of the first LEGO Ideas submission on this subject – what became known as the Research Institute, featuring three female scientists. I was actually really surprised that LEGO went ahead and made that set, and I think that signalled some positive changes in their overall line-up.
I soon started thinking of submitting my own LEGO Ideas sets – this is a contest that crowdsources ideas from the public, and LEGO considers producing any set that reaches 10,000 votes from the community (which is actually pretty difficult to accomplish!)
In 2015 I submitted a set featuring the first four women of the US Supreme Court, but it was rejected from the competition due to their rule about politics. So, I revised it to feature generic characters, and that set ultimately did quite well, but didn’t make it to 10,000 votes; it only got to about 4,000. To be honest, that project was certainly still unique, but it probably wasn’t as exciting as the original version, so I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t make it.
Anyway, I eventually decided to focus on this Women of NASA idea. Back in the very early days of conceptualising it, I thought it might be Women of Apollo, but then this wonderful Apollo Saturn V rocket set soared through the LEGO Ideas process, and I was concerned it might be too close in subject matter, so I broadened mine a bit to be Women of NASA.
In the end, I’m glad I went this route, because it captures multiple eras within NASA’s history – from Katherine Johnson and Margaret Hamilton, who calculated trajectories and developed code (respectively) for the Mercury and Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s; to Sally Ride and Nancy Grace Roman, who did probably their most famous work with NASA in the 1980s; to Mae Jemison, who was an astronaut with NASA in the 1990s.
Work involved in submitting a proposal for a particular LEGO set to be made
In order to submit a proposal, first you need a concept and a build. You don’t have to build the thing in real life – you can use a special LEGO computer-aided design system if you prefer. But I like to build them so I can have a copy, and then I photograph everything, edit the pictures, come up with some graphics, write a description, plan the social media, and let it fly!
For a project to go far, I think it’s a fairly detailed process, but anyone can submit something with just a photo or two and a brief description. After you submit the set, you need to collect 10,000 supporters on LEGO Ideas. And if you’re able to do that, then LEGO will officially review the set and, with luck, it will get selected to be produced!
I believe my Women of NASA set will be the 19th set made and sold via LEGO Ideas since the platform began (originally under the name CUUSOO) in 2011.
Choosing the women to be represented
Many people have asked why certain individuals aren’t included in the set, so I decided to write a post on this as one of my project updates. But the short answer is that I wanted it to be a diverse group of women, both in terms of areas of specialty, eras, contributions for NASA, cultural background, and ages. I also wanted to highlight both well-known individuals and individuals that fewer people have heard of.
I think people who work in, teach about, or are interested in STEM appreciated the set, and I did get quite a few votes of support and shares on social media from them, which was great.
Giving the proposal the edge over the competition
Probably a number of things helped the project to succeed. First and foremost is that the subject matter clearly inspired many, as I achieved 10,000 supporters in an almost unheard-of 15 days.
Right there, I’m sure that signalled to LEGO’s marketing team that such a product would do very well. And, coming back to the subject matter, I think this is due to a triple-play combo of NASA / space exploration; history of women in STEM; and LEGO – all of which I happen to be passionate about.
Another reason is that this is a fairly small set, which means more people might buy it. A few of the sets under consideration in this latest LEGO Ideas Review were quite big or were composed of many pieces, which would make them more expensive – and I suspect that means the market for them is a lot smaller, even if the designs are wonderful. Also, you have to look at the “niche” value on some sets that are lovely but may be harder to sell broadly.
The importance of social media as a channel for change
Social media has become a huge avenue – one of the most critical – for igniting interest in a subject and making change in the world. I literally could not have done this without social media. I actually work on social media professionally, and it’s clear that it’s become a key tool for communications – whether for news outlets, community projects, company messaging, or things like petitions, which you could argue LEGO Ideas sets are a form of.
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Coming up for me and LEGO Women of NASA
I sent the LEGO Ideas team some suggestions for Women of NASA design updates, mainly to the clothing, tools, and accessories for the five women, but the project is now in the hands of a LEGO design team at the company’s headquarters in Denmark. I’ll probably get a chance to see mock-ups at some point.
The set design will then need to be finalised, and factory production and marketing will need to be scheduled before LEGO announces on an on-sale date for the final product. As of now, it’s estimated that the set will be in stores by late 2017 or early 2018.
I always have a variety of projects going on, and this year that includes continuing research for a book proposal I’ve been working on relating to the history of women in STEM; a short film on a remarkable woman, Catherine Wolf, who is both a pioneer of human-computer interaction and someone who’s been living with ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis] for about 20 years; and another fun LEGO project, though I’m keeping details about that one mum for now.