In 2017 I entered my local hackathon with a programmable light-up dress. On demo day, I was unprepared for the enthusiasm I got from girls visiting my booth, with some asking for instructions to recreate the dress. As someone who was never into coding at a young age, it made me think a lot about the value of presenting tech in traditionally feminine contexts like design and textiles.
I walked away from the competition with an open-ended grant from the 1517 Fund and instantly knew I wanted to work on an educational resource – something more exciting than a textbook that could draw on the same visual appeal as my hackathon dress. Less Big Bang Theory and more what-if-Coco-Chanel-knew-about-conductive-thread. So I prototyped, visited classrooms, stuck circuit boards in cupcakes, and built a website: www.shebuildsrobots.org.
www.shebuildsrobots.org is a free educational resource for learning robotics and e-textiles. I designed each project to appeal to teen girls who may hold stereotypes of engineering as boring or uncreative. By following the website's guided tutorials, girls learn circuit and coding basics while building projects such as color-changing skirts, musical cupcake toppers, and tea-brewing robots.
Students absolutely have the capacity to be fascinated by topics they once perceived as boring. Additionally, tone matters a lot when introducing students to a subject that may intimidate them; colloquial and approachable usually beats lofty and academic, which is, unfortunately, the most prevalent tone in many engineering and science communities.
By shipping self-designed kits to local classrooms, I was able to introduce middle school girls across Chicagoland to their first robotics projects. They used my self-guided website content to tinker on their own and with their friends and teachers after school as part of Girls Who Code clubs.
The physical kits proved engaging to students who were screen-exhausted from the pandemic. They got to engineer tangible projects to take home to their parents and friends, perpetuating a cycle of encouragement and self-confidence. My hope is to give girls the confidence to enter the STEM pipeline at that crucial age when many pull away from math and science.