Tinkering with technology education

The maker movement's many entry points create a welcoming environment for tech education.

Does “making stuff” influence girls’ interest in technology and engineering? From Young makers to e-textile designers to student IT support squads, the stories and research imply that the answer is simply, “yes, of course.” Last month I had the very cool opportunity to discuss this topic as part of a panel at the National Coalition for Women in IT (NCWIT) Summit in New York City.

Having flown directly from Maker Faire in the Bay Area where girls and boys were both deeply engaged in all kinds of tinkering — from making spinbots to sewing to crafts to soldering — it was a pretty interesting cultural shift to attend a conference dedicated to overcoming the gender gap in computing and engineering. It seems counterintuitive that a field that has such an egalitarian, merit-based culture and ethic as computer science should be so overwhelmingly composed of men.

For many reasons (arguments range from equality and human rights to economic necessity) industry and the field of education have been working for decades to increase the representation of women in the engineering fields. Industry has looked to issues such as equal pay, women-friendly cultures, and benefits such as improved maternity leave and flexible working hours. Educators have focused on making science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses more attractive to young women, and to actively recruit young women into these fields.

Alongside these top-down efforts to actively increase the number of women in tech careers, the grass-roots, bottom-up maker movement has been quietly attracting tinkerers and DIY-ers of both genders. At Maker Faire, 100,000 folks got together to share projects, skills, and materials for making. The maker culture thrives on open sharing of techniques and knowledge and innovation, often leveraging open source software and open source hardware. In a perfect example of what John Seely Brown refers to as “Pull,” thousands of people are enabling themselves and each other to create freely using tools from the medieval to the hyper-modern. The goal is to make things: for their own sake, for utility, for artistic or technical exploration, but the side effect is the creation of a wide variety of the actual makers, themselves.

It turns out that the context in which technology is presented has a large effect on how attractive it is to each gender. At the risk of gender essentialism, it seems that often boys are attracted to robot battles while girls are attracted to robots as a means of helping the disabled, for instance. Boys are attracted to competitive video games while girls are attracted to social software. In making, there are such a variety of materials and ways to participate that the appeal is much broader than traditional technology contexts. I spoke briefly with Dale Dougherty at Maker Faire and noted that both boys and girls would happily solder or sew in this environment. Dale pointed out that with the large number of entry points, a very broad set of people are attracted to making. These people then find it easy and enjoyable to move around within the various approaches and technologies.

Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation Yes, advocates strongly for bringing this approach into formal education. At the NCWIT panel she talked about how her organization trains young people in schools to serve as in-house tech support. From manning genius bars to maintaining the school’s hardware and software, these young people have the opportunity to become leaders and explorers in the use of tech within their schools. Around 40% of the students who participate in Generation Yes projects are young women — roughly twice the representation of women in industry. Sylvia also spoke about Seymour Papert’s theory of Constructionism, essentially that children learn by doing. In the same way that professionals become expert as a side effect of doing their jobs, and makers become expert as a side effect of creating things, students learn both the complex skills of collaboration and innovation and communication as well as the hard skills of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic through doing meaningful, hands-on work.

Tony DeRose, lead of Pixar’s Research Group and founder of the Young Maker’s program, talked about how the time outside of school allowed young people the freedom to experiment, get things wrong, go down dead ends, recover, and move forward. As in real life, where there is no single right answer and where trying something new has risk, Young Makers have the chance to experience the gratification of genuine accomplishment through innovation and perseverance.

It seems much of the power of making is in its hobbyist timescale. There is time for the rhythms of hard grinding work and periods of flow, for brainstorming, collaboration, disagreement, and persistence. There is also tremendous learning about technologies, techniques, and materials that are far more authentic than most college courses. It provides lessons that stick because they are learned in a context of doing, rather than just listening.

Tony founded the Young Maker organization more than a year ago, bringing together young makers, mentors, and experts to support young people in truly ambitious projects. In the first year, 20% of the participants were young women, in the second year 40% were. Tony notes that in his experience so far, the young women are motivated by working together and the young men by doing “dangerous things.”

The final NCWIT panelist was Leah Buechley, head of the High-Low Tech Program at MIT’s Media Lab. Leah and her team have been researching how people combine high-tech and low-tech materials, such as electronic circuits with fabric for e-textiles, or conductive paint with paper. They developed the Lilypad Arduino, a washable, sewable version of the open-hardware Arduino microcontroller, and observed what kinds of communities adopted each of the technologies. Once again, the evidence suggests that the context in which technology is introduced is tremendously influential. Leah’s research showed that out of all Arduino projects, only 2% were created by women vs. 86% men and 12% unknown. For the Lilypad Arduino those numbers were 65% women, 25% men, and 10% unknown.

The maker movement is powerful on many levels. As with any important meme, it has powerful side effects, in this case as a welcoming culture and appealing invitation to technology for a broad audience that includes both women and men, seniors and kindergartners, technologists and artists. In the end, perhaps the most meaningful thing created by the maker movement will, indeed, turn out to be the new makers who find the tools, culture, and inspiration to create in new ways within its community.


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  • I’m a huge fan of the maker movement, having recently joined it (with quite some gusto, too).

    In response to the questions about the relatively low engagement of women in STEM, I might proffer this book, which has some interesting thoughts on the matter :)

    Disclaimer: I’m female, have an STEM background, and now work in writing/comms/web stuff for a scientific organisation (amongst other geek-related things)

  • Betsy L

    I think it would be interesting to note that females are much more apt to attend an online school. This form of higher education is probably more attractive to females because of the societal norms that still insist women be homemakers. An interesting correlation because online education seems to be replacing more traditional methods of learning, with that being said, it also encourages the STEM model. Thoughts?

  • Betsy

    not sure why my comment double posted! :/ #help

  • Donatella

    NCWI can talk all they want about encouraging women in IT, but you know what our female colleagues actually do about their fellow women in IT? Step over them on their way to their fancy promotions, that’s what, and maintain silence when their fellow women are professionally attacked, suffer workplace mobbing, or are being railroaded. The abstract concept of ‘women in IT’ doesn’t necessarily translate into support, networking, or encouragement for any one specific woman, do you understand? Even women who’ve helped and supported other women on their way up can be thrown to the dogs by male management without other IT women saying a kind word. It’s all about social circles of the high-ranking campus people, who is liked, who is getting promoted to the high-ranking, clean, cerebral job, and who they are beholden to. The male management structure divides and conquers. Some of us get promotions, some pink slips. Some of us get the podium, some of us are never allowed up from the floor no matter how much education and experience. Any networking and encouragement is really only for women who are in favor with male management. The org charts tell the truth every time.

  • Donatella

    Your submission form gave an error, then posted my comment multiple time. You might want to have your web person take a look at that.

  • Donatella

    Your form gave an error making the submitter think that the comment hadn’t posted, then it posted the comment more than once. You might want your web person to take a look.