Closing the STEM Gender Gap One Art.Bot At A Time

This article by Lisa Woods focuses on how to inspire girls with STEM workshops and help to close the STEM gender gap.

As a UX design lead, researcher, and strategist at argodesign, Lisa B. Woods has worked on a wide range of problems—including smart homes, data art, sentiment analysis, agricultural data, IoT storytelling, and healthcare applications.

Through these activities, she fosters the application of new technologies at the boundary of art, design, experience, and information.

Inspiring girls with a STEAM workshop

Of the 1.4 million new jobs expected to open in computing by the year 2020, only 3 percent are on track to be filled by women. After learning this troubling statistic, argodesign decided to team up with the nonprofit Girls Who Code to create a workshop to inspire young girls to get and stay interested in computer science.

We considered lots of ideas for our workshop and finally landed on using Bare Conductive’s Touch Board Starter Kit to teach girls about physical computing and user interaction by designing, building, and programming a life-sized “Art.Bot.”

What’s an Art.Bot? Art.Bots are 3D sculptures that come to life when touched. They are made of foam core, conductive copper touch points, wiring, and the Touch Board.

For our one-day workshop, we needed a mix of out-of-the-box functionality and flexibility. Since the girls varied in their coding expertise, the TouchBoard Kits allowed us to meet the girls at their skill level. The Art.Bots could be simple (one touch = one sound) or complex (different multitouch combinations = a multitude of sound combinations) depending on what the girls could handle.

In less than eight hours, the teenage girls—half with no coding experience—were able to team up and create three fully functional interactive Art.Bots. Not only did their talking interactive sculptures work, they were also robust enough to travel from our studio to Maker Faire Austin 2017, and survive two full days of kids of all ages touching and interacting with them at the event!

Creating the Art.Bots

Each team of girls began with the same life-size robot foam core sculpture. First, the girls were introduced to physical computing and capacitive sensing. The girls were shown how code translates a touch into playing an MP3 file.Next, the girls were asked to come up with a personality for their creature. Who is this creature? What is the creature’s personality? What does it want to say? What does it look like? Where do you touch it?

Next, the girls were asked to come up with a personality for their creature. Who is this creature? What is the creature’s personality? What does it want to say? What does it look like? Where do you touch it?By

By mid-morning, the girls had created a character, a script of phrases, and were having a blast creating each Art.Bot’s unique voice using found sounds, recorded sounds, and text-to-speech apps. Since it is super easy to transfer sound files to the Touch Board’s micro-SD card, they were able to experiment and iterate quickly.

By the afternoon, the girls had programmed sounds and touch points into Touch Board and were ready to assemble their talking bots. The alligator clips from the kit that the girls used for prototyping were replaced with more robust wires and conductive copper tape. We drilled holes to poke the wires from the back to the front. We secured both the wires and the creatures’ limbs with black duct tape.

We then helped the girls solder the wires to the Touch Board. By this time in the day, we were down to the wire—literally!

Once all the electronics were in place and tested, the girls decorated the front of their creature using colourful construction paper. Beaks, hats, feathers, eyes, and other accessories were created to bring each Art.Bot’s personality to life.

The final Art.Bots were truly delightful! One Art.Bot was an evil mastermind who loved riddles. Another Art.Bot was a Plutonian soldier sent to Earth by his Commander to convince Earthlings that Pluto is indeed a planet. (And the Plutonian language is in “chipmunk”). The third Art.Bot was a colourful snarky Emu bird. He boasted that it’s okay he can’t fly because he can run faster than you.

Teaching Thinking By Making

At argo, we espouse a Think By Making philosophy. We believe that we create better designs when we bring ideas to life as quickly as possible. In other words, by building and tinkering with prototypes, we gain insights that improve the products and user experiences we’re designing in quicker, more intuitive iterations.

Each team of girls had the opportunity to apply this think-by-making approach to the Art.Bots because the Touch Board kit made it easy for the girls to code, test, and iterate. They were simultaneously able to learn new skills, make necessary adjustments, and exercise their creativity.

We knew we had a successful workshop when the girls were loathed to leave—they just wanted to keep working on their Art.Bots!

New advanced workshop in the works

The success of our inaugural workshop has inspired us to host another, even more advanced, version of the workshop where we teach the girls more of the Touch Board’s custom code capabilities—distance sensing, using it as a MIDI controller, and changing the audio volume and trigger logic.

We are looking forward to closing the gender gap in computer science one Art.Bot at a time!

Author: Lisa Woods

Images & Video: argodesign

Non-profit: Girls Who Code

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