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Adda Birnir

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Lilypad Arduino

Posted: 05/10/2012 5:17 pm

When I tell people that one of my personal goals is to bring more women into tech, and that I plan to do so by making tech learning fun and accessible, a lot of people -- usually men -- worry that what I am doing is patronizing. They worry that I am peddling a "dumbed down" version of tech learning, and that I think women need to be shielded from the "harder stuff."

Inherent in this argument is the idea that this "harder stuff" -- a more difficult, less accessible version of things -- is the real version and thus the better version. But what if the more difficult, less accessible version is just that? Unnecessarily difficult and inaccessible?

I think that the real challenge is in making something dry and complicated easy to understand. But that may be another argument for another time.

What I want to discuss here is the case of Lilypad Arduino.

An Arduino is an open-source, single-board microcontroller that can be used for all manner of simple and fun electronics hardware projects. Like most microcontrollers, Arduino kits are soldered together.

Lilypad Arduino is a special Arduino kit that can be sewn together using conductive thread instead of solder and a soldering iron. It was created by Leah Buechley, a professor at the MIT Media Lab.

Sew circuits? What ridiculousness! Obviously something so simple, so feminine, so delicate couldn't possibly be a sufficient!

And yet the lights light up and the connections are made using tools found inside of any household sewing kit.

And women love it! They love it because it feels so funny, so novel. Circuit boards that are sewn together? How hilarious!

At a Women in Tech Summit in Philly I spoke with Stephanie Alarcon, a self-professed Unix geek and an organizer of The Hacktory, a renegade art and technology space in Philly.

"A couple of years ago, I would have said that gendered activities [like sewable micro-controllers] were patronizing and the wrong way to bring women into fields where they're underrepresented, but my mind has really changed about that," she told me. What she realized, as she has worked with women learning about electrical hardware for the first time, is that "we all have skills that we learn as kids that get planted in your reptile brain -- those are skills you take for granted," and are the skills you are comfortable using when you are in unfamiliar territory.

And for women, those skills may be more sewing, less soldering.

"So if people happen to be more comfortable making circuits out of conductive thread instead of solder, and those people happen to be primarily women, more power to them. If it works, let's teach it."

But there's more to it then that women like sewing more than they like soldering.

A sewable micro-controller isn't a "dumbed down" way to teach electrical hardware engineering, it's a gateway to a world of wearable electronic projects. Lilypad Arduino can be made into all manner of funky and wearable electronic textiles, like a fortune telling totebag or this turn signal biking jacket. The end game here is not soldering together a micro-controller, its sewing together electrical circuits in order to make something a life-saving turn signal biking jacket!

And there is good science to support the idea that a more pragmatic approach to computer technology is a more effective way to bring women into the computing sciences. A study conducted by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher at Carnegie Mellon showed that women were more likely to see computers as a tool they could use to advance their goals, while men were often interested in the machine as an end to itself. Margolis and Fisher named this phenomenon "computing with a purpose," and found that female undergraduates were five times more likely to cite the ability to use computing technology in other fields as the main reasons they majored in computer science.

And yet we continue to teach "learn variables in JavaScript" and not "Let's use JavaScript to make awesome image galleries!"

I am not arguing that everyone should switch from soldering to sewing circuit boards together. Anyone who wants to be a hardware engineer will eventually have to get out the soldering iron, just as anyone who wants to become a software engineer will eventually have to slog through the same boring tech manuals as the rest of us.

But the primary barrier to entry for women in tech is that they don't feel comfortable with computer hardware and software and they don't see why it would be useful to them. So if introducing them to technology and hardware via "softer," more pragmatic methods helps, then fantastic! Sign me up.

 
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