The magic of Lilypad Arduino, or “how to sew your way into the computing sciences.”

By Adda Birnir (Co-Founder, Balance Media & Skillcrush)

When I tell people that one of my personal goals is to bring more women into tech, and that I plan to do so by making tech learning fun and accessible, a lot of people – usually men – worry that what I am doing is patronizing. They worry that I am peddling a “dumbed down” version of tech learning, and that I think women need to be shielded from the “harder stuff.”

Inherent in this argument is the idea that this “harder stuff” – a more difficult, less accessible version of things – is the real version and thus the better version. But what if the more difficult, less accessible version is just that? Unnecessarily difficult and inaccessible?

What if finding ways to engage new audiences in technology isn’t patronizing, but powerful and potentially industry changing?

The truth is that we have a serious problem when it comes to women in tech and it’s about time we try some new ways to fix it. So let us for a minute, consider the case of Lilypad Arduino.

An Arduino is an “open-source, single-board microcontroller,” which basically means a Very Small Computer That You Can Make Do Neat Things. It can be used for all sorts of simple and fun electronic hardware projects, like making things beep and light blink. Most Arduino kits need to be soldered together in order to work. Lilypad Arduino offers a neat alternative. Lilypad Arduino is an Arduino kit that can be sewn together using conductive thread instead of solder and a soldering iron. It was created by Leah Buechley, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and first made commercially available in 2007.

Sew circuits? What ridiculousness! Obviously something so simple, so feminine, so delicate couldn’t possibly be sufficient! And yet the lights light up and the connections are made using tools found inside of any household sewing kit. And women love it! They love it because it feels so funny, so novel. Circuit boards that are sewn together? Hilarious!

At a Women in Tech Summit in Philly I spoke with Stephanie Alarcon, a self-professed Unix geek and an organizer of The Hacktory, a renegade art and technology space in Philly. “A couple of years ago, I would have said that gendered activities [like sewable micro-controllers] were patronizing and the wrong way to bring women into fields where they’re underrepresented, but my mind has really changed about that,” she told me.

What she realized, as she has worked with women learning about electrical hardware for the first time, is that “we all have skills that we learn as kids that get planted in your reptile brain – those are skills you take for granted,” and are the skills you are comfortable using when you are in unfamiliar territory. And for women, those skills may be more sewing, less soldering.

“So if people happen to be more comfortable making circuits out of conductive thread instead of solder, and those people happen to be primarily women, more power to them. If it works, let’s teach it.”

In 2010, Buechley and her colleague Benjamin Mako Hill conducted an online survey of Lilypad Arduino projects. What they found was “dramatic evidence that the LilyPad has opened things up to new audiences,” Buechley told me via email. A full 65% of Lilypad projects posted online were created by women, which dwarfs the 2% of Arduino projects created by women.

But there’s more to it then that women like sewing more than they like soldering.

A sewable microcontroller isn’t a “dumbed down” way to teach electrical hardware engineering, it’s a gateway to a world of wearable electronic projects. Lilypad Arduino can be made into all manner of funky and wearable electronic textiles, like a a Velcro tic-tac-toe game or a bike jacket that signals which way you are turning. The end game here is not soldering together a micro-controller, it’s sewing together electrical circuits in order to make something a life-saving turn signal biking jacket!

There is good science to support the idea that a more pragmatic approach to computer technology is more effective in bringing women into the computing sciences. A study conducted by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher at Carnegie Mellon showed that women were more likely to see computers as a tool they could use to advance their goals, while men were often interested in the machine as an end to itself. Margolis and Fisher named this phenomenon “computing with a purpose” and found that female undergraduates were five times more likely to cite the ability to use computing technology in other fields as the main reasons they majored in computer science.

I am not arguing that everyone should switch from soldering to sewing circuit boards together. Anyone who wants to be a hardware engineer will eventually have to get out the soldering iron, just as anyone who wants to become a software engineer will eventually have to slog through the same boring tech manuals as the rest of us. But the primary barrier to entry for women in tech is that they don’t feel comfortable with computer hardware and software and they don’t see why it would be useful to them. So if introducing them to technology and hardware via “softer,” more pragmatic methods helps, then fantastic! Sign me up.

This post was originally posted at Skillcrush.

Photo credit: A Lilypad Arduino powered tic-tac-toe board Rainycatz. Turn signal bike jackets via The Kneeslider.

About the guest blogger: Adda Birnir is Co-Founder of Balance Media, a women-led client services and product development company based in New York, and Skillcrush, an online learning community for female creatives, thinkers and makers. Our goal is to create the next generation of digitally-savvy, creative females who can rule the web. Adda’s principal interests are digital media, progressive journalism, art and infographics. Check out her website here. Follow her on Twitter at @builtbybalance.