Do we have to do something different in order to get girls interested in 3D tech? Graduate students Sara Chipps and Maria Paula Saba, at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) have broached the subject by creating opportunities in wearable tech, and 3D Printing, specifically designed to capture girls’ interest. Some might find that idea distasteful, but it’s certainly something that needs to be discussed. Leaving aside whether mainstream culture is in a desirable state for women and girls, the idea that it’s important to captivate women’s interest in a male dominated industry is progress in and of itself.
The idea that girls’ interests may be different is often dismissed. This doesn’t mean that girls are never drawn to 3D because of their interest in robotics or video games, it simply means there are other attractors that could be utilized as well. The invisibility of the gender bias in current tech outreach becomes clearer when we imagine the reverse situation – if the tech narrative for youth were jewelry or fashion. It’s not that boys are never drawn to fashion or jewelry but people would realize there were other potential interests that were valid and yet were being overlooked.
If 3D printing technology is really going to become an integrated part of societal interactions and advancement, it is vital that it cut across all segments of society, otherwise it simply recreates another power structure in which one group dominates another. Unfortunately, beauty and fun have too often been denigrated as girly and rather than questioning the negativity associated with being ‘girly’ many forward thinking people have instead worked to stamp out the delight. This kind of insecurity is a hallmark of newly developing fields that are trying to ‘prove themselves’ to the already existing institutions.
Maria Paula Saba is working to prove these technologies as valuable, in and of themselves, and she’s doing it through Jewliebots. The current Jewliebot design is a bracelet printed with flexible filament. The circuits, and the arduino compatible microcontroller, are embedded within those 3D printed cases and flowers of polymer clay with LED lights are affixed. These techy couture fashion accessories can be programmed to flash and blink a variety of colors and patterns. Once connected to the computer, through either USB or blue tooth, the open source coding allows its wearer to customize it as many times as they like – and practice programming in the process.
Saba admits that part of her interest in this project came from her own disinterest in programming as a girl:
“I used to think programming was ‘too complicated and boring’…Now, I often thing ‘I wish I’d learned programming before. But I couldn’t because it hasn’t [sic] been shown to me earlier that programming could be creative…Empowering girls by giving them an easier access to technology and programming could not only help them to find better jobs in the future, but also helps the technology field, which absolutely needs women’s sensitivity and point of view to evolve better.”
She is not just relying on her own ideas of what might interest girls. She conducted extensive focus group sessions, user experience research, and participatory design workshops with girls, ages 9 to 17, to respond to and provide feedback for her ideas. The girls involved in Saba’s study enjoyed the opportunity for personalization through programming provided by the bracelet and began offering their own suggestions for future iterations. It is exactly this interest in and creative projection of programming possibilities that Saba’s project was designed to engender. This means that even if these girls outgrow their fashion interests, they still carry the idea of programming with them as a way of creating. As Saba said, “Wearables, a field where fashion meets technology, is the perfect opportunity to bring them [girls] to this market that is growing.”
It is interesting to note the development of projects and interests such as these in combination with the increase in 3D printing technologies available in the traditionally male venues of shop and vocational tech classes. Saba plans to continue working with Sara Chipps, co-founder of Girl Develop It, an organization “empowering women of diverse backgrounds from around the world to learn how to develop software.” As Saba notes, however, it is one thing to offer the courses and training and another to garner ongoing youth interest such that it becomes a natural part of the options for girls. Let’s hear your opinion on Jewliebots as well as the gender gap within the 3D printing and programming spaces, in the Jewliebots forum thread on 3DPB.com
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