Computer science in the United States is an overwhelmingly male discipline. Many of the the crucial factors in this gender imbalance are cultural; that is, the culture that has grown up around computer science has a variety of attributes that appeal more to males than females.
How can we introduce more girls to computer programming?
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder, proposed a project to introduce computer programming through e-Textiles. Thompson School District is one of the educational institutions benefitting from this grant through the generosity and direction of the National Center for Women and Technology (NCWIT) and support from Intel, University of Colorado-Boulder and the National Science Foundation.
E-textiles, also known as electronic textiles, are fabrics that enable digital components, small computers, and electronics to be embedded in them. Many intelligent clothing, smart clothing, wearable technology, and wearable computing projects involve the use of e-textiles.
Electronic textiles are distinct from wearable computing because emphasis is placed on the integration of fabrics with electronic elements like microcontrollers, sensors, and actuators. Furthermore, e-textiles need not be wearable. For example, e-Textiles are also found in craft-making, quilting, toys, and interior design.
Strengthening STEM in our Middle Schools
All five Thompson School District middle school Family and Consumer Studies teachers engaged in a two-day training to increase access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in their typically girl-dominated classrooms. Each will pilot the e-Textiles project with their students this fall.
This curriculum module will engage students in the engineering design cycle. Students will go through the different stages of this process: investigate, design, plan, create, and evaluate. They will learn the skills to produce two e-Textiles products: a bookmark and a stuffed “monster“. Important learning concepts will be the electronic science behind the circuitry and computer components. Students will learn visual programming skills using the Arduino programming language in order to use LilyPad Arduino toolkit.
Teachers as Learners
The e-Textiles Pilot Project allowed our Thompson teachers to be learners, too. About 50% of our teacher participants had previous computer programming skills. For the other half of the group, learning to code was a brand new skill. On the first day of the training, each teacher participant designed and produced a eTextile bookmark using felt, conductive thread, glue, LED lights, a laptop for programming and a LilyPad Arduino computer chip.
Each teacher used this as an opportunity to experience the design process as learners in their classrooms would. On the second day of the training, the teachers created a “monster” following the process that their students would in their classrooms. They conceptualized a design, created the product, wrote the programming code to light up their monsters and add a musical component as well.
After each lesson, the teachers debriefed the learning process with NCWIT facilitator, Stephanie Weber, in order to conceptualize how the lesson would unfold in their classrooms with 6th, 7th and 8th grade students.
The Thompson teachers predict their students will really enjoy this project. It will give them a chance to personalize their learning and express their individual, creative side. It will also give them an engaging context for integrating the use of computer programming and make connections to the world of computer engineering. Hopefully, through this project more students will have access to STEM-focused career pathways. It’s vitally important for us to find opportunities to engage students and interest them in these areas.