Barbies are a universal cultural icon. Their manufacturer, Mattel, expanded the appearance of their dolls beyond their original look in 1959 to the wide array of ethnicities, careers, and stylings available today. One thing Barbie wasn’t, back in the early 2000’s, was a canopy scientist. Nalini Nadkarni recognized the importance of Barbie in the lives of young children and the influence the doll has over shaping children’s perceptions of career possibilities. This inspired her to create TreeTop Barbie, a tiny public engagement of science project. She and her students bought secondhand Barbies and outfitted them with canopy climbing gear and an educational booklet to offer forest ecology as a model for a possible career choice.
In 2019, National Geographic and Mattel sought out Nalini to serve as a consultant on a new partnership. They were developing a line of Barbies that focused on making science interesting and accessible to the children who play with them. With input from National Geographic, Mattel created dolls, outfits, and accessories to highlight women who are astrophysicists, nature photographers, entomologists, and wildlife biologists.
National Public Radio recently highlighted this relationship, as well as Nalini’s broader efforts to get girls into canopy science. Maddie About Science, a series led by NPR Science Desk Host Maddie Sofia, accompanied Nalini into the canopy and filmed from the trees. In the video and subsequent broadcasts on All Things Considered and Short Wave, Nalini highlighted the experience of climbing through the canopy to see the world above the forest floor. She also discussed the long route the Barbie idea took, ultimately marketed with an international reach.
Nalini is grateful for the opportunity to work with National Geographic and Mattel on such an important project. She is equally grateful to Maddie Sofia and NPR for their coverage of the project, and the importance of getting girls into canopy science.
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G’day Nalini, I’m an entomologist of Afro-Caribbean descent who volunteers in the STEM in Schools program in Canberra, Australia. My old branch manager sent me this link after I presented my old work area with a black Entomologist Barbie I made myself using a black Fashionista Barbie and an Entomologist Barbie playset last November. I had to make my own as I couldn’t get a response after contacting Barbie, Mattel and National Geographic to ask if the playsets came in other colours (blonde was the only type online). Anyway, although I was a little disappointed, my students and teachers were thrilled with their mini-Carol Barbie dolls. When I saw your article, I was happy to see Mattel is producing more diversity and STEM-inspired occupations for their Barbie dolls.
What a great contribution to girls of all ages. I heard your story on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and was so pleased to know Mattel saw the opportunity. I’m sorry they did not respond to you. We are the ones working with children and see the need to open the minds of all people especially out children. There is a world out there that they don’t know about and this such a positive way to introduce your passion to them. Thank you!!!!
This is so exciting to see. I have been making my own barbies for years (Activist barbie) and I love that they chose you to model one on. I use your TED talks in my high school botany course in Seattle to have students think creatively about the intersection of science, art, and community. I’ll be buying this one as soon as a I can find it!.