Category Archives: Girls

Maker Spaces and Digital Fabrication Democratize Learning

As Paulo Blikstein noted “Innovation and collaborative problem-solving are core skills for virtually any career, and yet those are the very elements that have been pushed out of the schools by the mandates of standardized testing.” If you’re a parent who is frustrated by this, perhaps you sign your child up an after-school robotics class, or you register for an online program such as DIY.org, or maybe it’s a kind of hybrid plan and you order your daughter (or son) a Blink Blink creative circuits project kit. If you’re a teacher, maybe you sign yourself up for a professional development event, such as “Project-Based Learning Integration: From Design to Evaluation” held on June 9 at the Beam Center.

It was refreshing to witness the engagement of about 30 educators while learning about the background of project-based learning (PBL) and digital fabrication and working together to brainstorm appropriate projects.

Not only did we learn about how maker spaces need to be designed for optimal impact, but we also personally experienced first-hand some of the challenges of designing effective projects.

What is Beam?

The evening’s session was hosted by Brian Cohen, Co-Director of the Beam Center and facilitated by Nancy Otero, Director of Professional Development. The Beam Center, located in the transitioning industrial waterfront of Red Hook, has a number of different offerings, ranging from collaborative projects with kids, working with schools to develop their own programs, and professional development.

Their programs include after-school workshops for elementary school children and programs for high school students in which they collaborate with engineers and artists. Beam Camp is held in Strafford, New Hampshire and includes both full summer sessions as well as one-month experiences that are focused on a new and unique building project for each session.

Key Concepts of Project-Based Learning

Surrounded by projects spanning conductible yarn to a dome-like tent that projects digital representations of the constellations, we were first provided an overview of PBL. Otero is also Curriculum Coordinator and Developer for theTransformative Learning Technologies Lab at Stanford University and founder of Active Emergence, a group that helps schools develop MakerSpaces orFabLabs@School. She shared a number of key concepts associated with successful PBL:

  • Space matters: As David Kelley of IDEO has pointed out, “We read our physical environment, like we read a human face.” Otero stressed the importance of making learning spaces gender neutral and accessible, with ample examples of what types of projects are possible.
  • Let kids explore: Here we were encouraged to consider Maria Montessori’s advice to “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
  • CREATE: According to Otero, successful projects share the following characteristics.
    • Child Direct: Let students choose, be curious and lead.
    • Risk Friendly: Encourage successful failures.
    • Emotionally Attuned: Praise process rather than people.
    • Active: Judge activities by tinkerability and playfulness.
    • Time Flexible: Help students find and stay in flow.
    • Exploratory: Ask open questions.

The Need to be Purposeful in Terms of Diversity and Design

Two main findings tell us that we need to be purposeful both in terms of how we encourage participation in PBL and digital fabrication as well as in how we design the actual learning experiences. As Otero shared with our group:

  • Diversity is something we need to continually strive for. According to Leah Bueckey’s keynote at FabLearn 2013:
    • Of the 36 magazine covers depicting maker projects and curricula, 85% of the people shown were male, O% were African American;
    • Of 512 articles surveyed, 85% were written by male authors;
    • Of the projects developed to date, 90% appear to be in the category of electronics, vehicles and robots.
  • Order matters: In designing learning activities, studies have shown that students learn better when given the opportunity to experiment and then are provided with instruction. Think of the flipped classroom methodology. Experiments by Schneider and Blikstein show higher performance on tasks when students are allowed to discover for themselves rather than having to first listen to instructions on how to perform the tasks.

Trying It on for Size

As we found out, designing such projects has its challenges. Walking around the room as smaller groups worked through the process of planning sample projects, Otero encouraged active brainstorming and discouraged the tendency to lead with technology. She challenged groups to focus on individual concepts that students could learn while working through projects that ranged from urban design, working with fractions, and conductivity. What did we want the kids to learn?

What’s ahead for PBL and Digital Fabrication?

According to Otero, “We are seeing more and more independent schools implementing [these projects] as a tool for multidisciplinary activities, teaching robotics and programing. More and more teachers from public and independent schools are interested in using technology even though it’s not clear how to integrate it or evaluate it. Parents and students are asking for these spaces and classes. They will happen, hopefully as a tool to understand technology and find it less alienating, and as a way to democratize invention.”

While a growing range of opportunities exist outside of school for PBL in after-school programs, maker clubs and spaces, in online programs and within the homeschooling and unschooling communities, Blikstein’s comments continue to ring true. Hopefully, with programs such as those at the Beam Center and the growing DIY and Maker movements, one day we will prove Blikstein wrong and see this type of innovation integrated in the schools as well. I think he might be OK with that.

Women, Girls & Tech: Building Engagement in Business and Learning

Most of us know the statistics. On average, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. And only 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce is comprised of women. But maybe you are like me, and you think your gender hasn’t played as much of a role in your career trajectory.

I cut my professional teeth in a university teaching department that was led by women for the most part and in which women held the majority of positions. Somewhat conversely, I’ve worked in and on the edges of edtech for the past couple of decades, and I’ve been in situations where men dominated the top of the chain of command and where men made up the majority of engineering teams. The women I knew and worked with ran complex learning design projects and marketing efforts. We all formed an ecosystem in which people played their part, jobs got done and gender was not a frequent topic of discussion.

Stay with me here. I’m building up to something.

Opportunities for Women in Tech

Recently, as I’ve explored edtech from a K-12 perspective, I’ve been introduced to women in very strong leadership positions, running companies that are considered to be the forefront of their field: Alex Meis, Co-Founder of Kinvolved; Maya Gat, CEO and Co-Founder of Branching Minds; Juliette LaMontagne, CEO and Founder of Breaker, to name a few.

So, I was a little surprised (not shocked) to hear that when the New York Tech Meetup (NYTM) group first started inviting people to demo, very few women were applying.  For that reason, according to Executive Director Jessica Laurence, they started offering a Women’s Demo Night and were able to generate interest from women entrepreneurs.

NYTM is the largest Meetup group in the world, with about 44,000 members currently. At its latest Women’s Demo Night, hosted by Bloomberg and held at their Lexington Avenue headquarters, six women demoed products ranging from image collaboration software to addiction recovery. I encourage you to visit these sites, as there is very interesting work being done by all these companies.

http://addicaid.com/

http://www.benefitkitchen.com/

http://www.blinkblink.cc/

http://www.bunchcut.com/

http://hellogoldbean.com/

http://www.weintervene.com/

Out of all of these, Blink Blink tells the best story of why and how we need to be purposeful in creating opportunities for girls and women in learning and in the workplace.

Getting Girls Excited about STEM One Circuit at a Time

Blink Blink is run by the dynamic duo of Nicole Messier and Joselyn McDonald. Messier is an aerospace engineer and McDonald is a filmmaker turned technology designer. The pair met in graduate school at Parsons School of Design. Their shared passions for technology and creativity resulted in a love for wearable tech and creative circuits. They channeled this into a means of getting more girls in tech and engineering by hosting workshops to explore crafting with technology and art.

Based on the success of these workshops, hosted by middle schools and high schools, Messier and McDonald decided to package the workshop materials into multi-project kits that kids can work on at home. The kit contains a creative circuit booklet, copper tape, conductive fabrics and thread, LEDs, crafting supplies and more. The craft kit enables individual users to make 10 different projects at a cost lower than would be required if consumers had to purchase the materials on their own.

Blink Blink has a great story to tell in terms of women in edtech and women creating engaging learning opportunities for girls in science and technology. They have participated in the innovative 4.0 Schools Accelerator Program, exhibited at SXSWedu, received the Maker Faire Editor’s Choice and Best in Class awards as well as the New Challenge Grant for Social Innovation. They are currently running a KickStarter campaign to fund production of their next round of creative circuitry kits.

Be Purposeful

Kudos to the NYTM for creating the Women’s Demo Event as well as the Women in Tech NYC group “to increase the number of women participating in New York’s technology industry.” Please visit the links above to learn more about all the companies that demoed at the event last week. Special thanks to the women of Blink Blink for making great strides towards social impact and for being purposeful in creating a company that will engage girls in learning about science in a fun, engaging and creative way.

Update: Blink Blink’s Kickstarter campaign ended successfully, raising $29,012 with 371 backers in June of this year. Visit their site to view and purchase one of their fantastic kits.