CHAMPAIGN — Janna Eaves and Supriya Hobbs want to encourage girls to consider careers in science and engineering — and they think they can do it with dolls.
The two University of Illinois students have started a company, Miss Possible, that aims to produce dolls based on historical figures, such as Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist who discovered the elements radium and polonium.
The dolls, which would portray the historical figures as 10-year-old children, would be more than just playthings.
Each doll would "come with an access code to an online community, where (the doll's owner) can play logic and puzzle games to build on problem-solving skills," said Eaves, a 20-year-old junior in materials science engineering.
"This can help them build on tools they need to succeed," she said.
In the case of Marie Curie, the doll would come with a small chemistry set, Eaves said.
Eaves and Hobbs came up with the idea last January and used it in the Cozad New Venture Competition on campus.
They were one of eight teams to make it to the finals, Eaves said, and they won some in-kind prizes that, among other things, enabled them to incorporate as a limited liability company.
Now the team has grown to nine people including three designers, two Web developers and a marketing specialist.
"For now, we're working on building a prototype, and we're working on our first game," Eaves said.
Hobbs, a 21-year-old senior in chemical engineering, and Eaves have been active in the Society of Women Engineers. They worked with girls in area schools, trying to involve them in science and engineering activities.
In considering the situation, "what resonated with us is there aren't enough strong female role models for girls to see," Eaves said.
"Boys see presidents, astronauts, CEOs, but girls are seeing more princesses and hypersexualized images," she said.
Eaves said the concept "sounds like the American Girl" line of dolls, but those dolls "don't necessarily send a message of female empowerment or aspiring to higher career goals," Eaves said.
Plus, they don't emphasize educational games that promote problem-solving skills, she added.
Eaves said the starting price point for the Miss Possible dolls is expected to be $35, with the Web component free with the purchase of a doll. Later, the price may go up to the $50 range, she said.
The founders of Miss Possible are hoping to launch a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign in September to raise money for production of the dolls.
But during the summer, Eaves and Hobbs expect to be busy with other things. Eaves plans to serve an internship with SpaceX, the rocket and spacecraft company, and Hobbs plans to go to work for pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly & Co.
They're participating in the Cozad competition again this spring. Last year, they competed under the Supergirl name, but later changed it, anticipating problems in trademarking the name.
Both women have lived in the Innovation Living-Learning Community in the Illinois Street Residence Halls on campus, and they credit the program specialist, Jennifer Bechtel, with inspiring them.
"She's been a huge supporter through the whole process," Eaves said.