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Visiting Washington, D.C.
Despite national initiatives to diversify participation in STEM fields, the underlying culture of computing education remains relatively stagnant, with curricula that continues to emphasize areas historically aligned more closely with male interests than women’s. Fortunately, today’s makerspaces are rife with new tools and materials, like e-textiles, that are spurring shifts in the ways we interact with technology. Informed by sociocultural constructionism and the new materialisms, our studies indicate that e-textile production can help improve learning outcomes in computing education and thus has ramifications that extend beyond the issue of gender in STEM.
Methods, data sources and evidence.
The capacity for e-textiles to diversify participation was first documented by Leah Buechley and Benjamin Mako Hill, who discovered that while men created the majority of traditional Arduino (i.e., robotics) projects online, women created most of the LilyPad Arduino projects (e.g., e-textiles), even though both types of projects share the same microprocessor and are programmed in the same language. The researchers suggested that the gender discrepancy was due to a combination of the tools and materials used, the construction practices employed, and the nature of the products. To understand whether these variables could alter classroom culture in a similar way, we closely observed middle school youth working in mixed-gender pairs on e-textile projects. While both boys and girls equally engaged in e-textile activity, as evidenced by body language, gaze, talk-on-task, and other indicators, girls tended to play a greater leadership role, which was predictive of having more sophisticated command of the technology in subsequent projects, requiring less troubleshooting and assistance from others.
In addition to broadening STEM participation, subsequent studies also revealed that e-textiles might also offer greater transparency into STEM disciplinary content than traditional materials. Evidenced by paired-samples t-tests, youths’ ability to diagram a working circuit after working with e-textiles was considerably higher in post-assessment than in pre-assessment. In addition, the youth significantly increased their knowledge of current flow, circuit polarity or directionality, and connectivity—concepts even college undergraduates have persistent misunderstandings about. Stitching circuits seems to demystify ideas that can be elusive to students using traditional electronics toolkits, such as the fact that some circuit components have an associated polarity that current flows in a loop, and that current only flows when there is a solid connection between components.
Scientific or scholarly significance of the study.
These studies suggest e-textiles can impact the computing culture in both the wild and the classroom. We attribute this largely to the artistic nature of e-textile design and construction: the tools, materials, practices, and products are “coded” for girls, encouraging them to engage in computing by engaging their creative interests. By incorporating novel, cross-disciplinary technologies such as e-textiles in computing education can broaden participation, particularly by women, and improve learning outcomes.