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Electronic textiles are a part of the increasingly popular maker movement that champions existing do-it-yourself activities. As making activities broaden from Maker Faires and fabrication spaces in children's museums, science centers, and community organizations to school classrooms, they provide new opportunities for learning while challenging many current conventions of schooling. In this article, authors Yasmin Kafai, Deborah Fields, and Kristin Searle consider one disruptive area of making: electronic textiles. The authors examine high school students' experiences making e-textile designs across three workshops that took place over the course of a school year and discuss individual students' experiences making e-textiles in the context of broader findings regarding themes of transparency, aesthetics, and gender They also examine the role of e-textiles as both an opportunity for and challenge in, breaking down traditional barriers to computing.
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Electronic Textiles as Disruptive Designs: Supporting and Challenging Maker Activities in
Schools
YASMIN KAFAI
University of Pennsylvania
DEBORAH FIELDS
Utah State University
KRISTIN SEARLE
University of Pennsylvania
ABSTRACT: Electronic textiles are a part of the increasingly popular “Maker Movement”, a
movement that champions existing do-it-yourself (DIY) activities, particularly those that include
a digital component. As making activities spread from Maker Faires—large events that showcase
DIY creations—and fabrication spaces in children’s museums, science centers, and community
organizations to school classrooms, they provide new opportunities for learning while
challenging many current conventions of schooling. In this paper, we consider one disruptive
area of making: electronic textiles. We examine high school students’ experiences making
electronic textile designs across three workshops taking place over the course of a school year.
To analyze students’ engagement and learning we focused on the following research questions:
How does designing with e-textile materials promote transparency of technology? What role do
aesthetic considerations play in students’ making of e-textiles? In what ways do e-textile
activities complicate students’ gendered perspectives on computing and engineering? Our study
is based on an examination of students’ design processes and final e-textile products,
observations of workshop activities and conversations, and debriefing interviews conducted with
students at the end of each workshop. Throughout this paper, we discuss individual students’
experiences making e-textiles in the context of broader findings regarding themes of
transparency, aesthetics, and gender that come into play when making with e-textiles. In our
discussion, we examine the role of e-textiles as both an opportunity and challenge facing the
Maker movement as it advances into schools as well as more general needs in breaking down
traditional barriers to computing.
<EPI>We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just
as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.
<EPAT>Ada Lovelace, 1843
In May 2011 fourteen year-old Tamieka
1
attended a four-week workshop where she made an
electronic textile in the form of a light-up, felt flower as a present for Mother’s Day. Instead of
giving flowers, Tamieka wanted to make a flower that would forever bloom—rather forever,
light up — as a gift for her mother. Before participating in the workshop Tamieka, a young
African American woman in her first year of high school, had no interest or experience in the
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1
!All!student!names!throughout!the!paper!are!pseudonyms.!
fields of engineering or computing. Yet designing circuits and writing code to make an electronic
textile flower helped her see connections between these fields—just like computer pioneer Ada
Lovelace’s observations connected computing algebraic patterns with weaving flowers in textiles
over 150 years ago. Created as part of Tamieka’s 9
th
grade electronic textile workshop, the
flower consisted of eleven cut red felt petals, five red LED lights on the tips of the petals, a
delicate stem, and one small leaf with two green LED lights controlled via a small, round
computer that she had programmed to make the lights fade in and out in a slow, undulating
pattern (see Image1).
<IMAGE 1 NEAR HERE/ IMAGE 1 Tamieka’s initial blueprint design (upper left), our
drawing of her circuit schematic (upper right), her design and e-textile sewing in progress
(lower left), and the almost complete e-textile flower (lower right)>
To create this ever blooming electronic textile flower, Tamieka had to design a functional circuit
blueprint using pencil and paper, craft the flower using felt materials, stitch the circuits to
connect the LED lights, and write the code to control them. She utilized sewing skills that she
learned from her grandmother—indeed she sought out help from her grandmother when she took
the project home one night—and drew on other skills like designing circuits and programming
code learned in her school workshops. Making an electronic textile became an unexpected and
rich context in which she learned about and developed an appreciation for engineering and
computing—fields she knew little about before. The workshop also served as an entry to more
traditional computer courses; a year later Tamieka applied for and attended a high school
computing summer camp at a local university.
Electronic textiles (hereafter referred to as e-textiles) are part of a growing group of maker
activities that can reveal how digital media is made and designed, combining the physical and
digital (Buechley, Peppler, Eisenberg, & Kafai, 2013). While “making” encompasses everything
from woodworking and auto repair to cooking and mixing cocktails, it predominantly features
the use of computational tools—both hardware and software—that have become increasingly
affordable and accessible to the general public (Frauenfelder, 2010; Gauntlett, 2011). E-textiles
certainly fit the bill of these types of projects by using electronics and computing; however they
also challenge current making conventions by integrating the use of “soft” textile materials that
are sewn and embroidered with conductive thread. In a comparison of individuals purchasing and
making projects with the LilyPad Arduino versus the technologically identical Arduino, a strong
correspondence was found between an individual’s gender and her/his product preference.
Buechley & Hill (2010) argue that this correlation is likely because the sewable, round LilyPad
Arduino lends itself to textile and painting kinds of projects favored by women and girls whereas
the rectangular Arduino requires wire and solder and is better-suited to other kinds of more
traditional computing or engineering projects, like building a robot, that typically attract men and
boys. The challenge to get more women involved is important to all STEM (science, technology,
engineering, mathematics) fields (Ong, Wright, Espinosa & Orfield, 2011) but particularly
poignant in computing which some have called a “locked clubhouse,open to mainly boys and
men (Margolis & Fisher, 2002; Margolis, Estrella, Goode, Holme & Nao, 2008).
In this paper, we examine high school students’ experience making e-textile designs across three
workshops that took place over the course of a school year. Students had the opportunity to
participate in up to three workshops that each lasted for a minimum of eight hours, with projects
growing in complexity across the year. To analyze students’ engagement and learning we
focused on the following research questions: How does designing with e-textile materials
promote transparency of technology—a better understanding of how technology works? What
role do aesthetic considerations play in students’ making of e-textiles? In what ways do e-textile
activities complicate students’ gendered perspectives on computing and engineering? Our study
is based on an examination of students’ design processes and final e-textile products,
observations of workshop activities and conversations, and debriefing interviews conducted with
students at the end of each workshop. Throughout this paper, we discuss individual students’
experiences making e-textiles in the context of broader findings regarding themes of
transparency, aesthetics, and gender that come into play when making with e-textiles. Indeed, we
argue that the co-presence of these themes was key to e-textiles' success in opening doors to
students traditionally excluded from technical domains. The ‘hands-on’ fabrication of e-textiles
is paired with the learning of decidedly more (at least as popularly perceived) ‘minds-on’
computing and engineering. The combination of academic skills and hands-on work is a much
needed but missing facet of schooling (Rose, 2005). In light of this, we also examine the
challenges and opportunities of bringing e-textiles into schools.
<H1>Background
E-textiles are a part of the increasingly popular “Maker Movement” among educators and policy
makers (Honey & Kanter, 2013), a movement that champions existing do-it-yourself (DIY)
activities, particularly those that include a digital component. E-textiles, like Tamieka’s flower,
incorporate elements of engineering and computing by using sensors for measuring light,
temperature, and pressure, and “actuators” such as lights that are sewn with conductive thread on
clothing and attached to small, flat, sewable computers (microcontrollers) that can be
programmed (Buechley, 2006). As making activities spread from Maker Faires (large events that
showcase DIY creations) and fabrication spaces in children’s museums, science centers, and
community organizations to school classrooms , it provides new opportunities for learning but
also challenges many of the current conventions of schooling (Honey & Kanter, 2013). Bringing
maker activities like e-textiles into schools disrupts the notions of “right” answers and the ideal
of achievement codified on uniform standardized tests that have become such a visible part of
today’s schooling (Kliebard, 1995). Instead, making prioritizes students’ desire and abilities to
invent solutions to custom needs, debug problems that arise from their own initiative, and
understand how technology works (Dougherty, 2013).
While the concept of disruption is typically associated with promoting school reform
(Christensen, Horn & Johnson, 2010), here we focus on three critical themes—promoting
transparency, integrating aesthetics, and increasing diversity in learning with e-textiles—that
serve to disrupt typical notions about how and who can and should learn and create with
computers. These three themes may appear unrelated at first, but throughout this paper we will
strategically address each in turn to argue for their mutually beneficial importance. Each of these
themes interdependently facilitates the others. The pairing of crafting with circuitry and
programming—each historically gendered technologies (Ensmenger, 2010)—plays a key role in
making computing transparent, facilitating functional aesthetics that supports learning, and
supporting new visions for participation across traditionally gendered boundaries.
<H2>Technological Transparency
To begin, we consider transparency in technology learning. The concept of transparency may
initially seem counterintuitive since computers indeed are now visible everywhere, particularly
outside of school (Ito et al., 2009). However, few youth engage deeply in creating with
technologies or begin to understand what makes the technology work and how it is put together,
and who can and should participate in designs (e.g., Hargittai, 2010). Most computer classes
offered in schools focus on getting students to use applications—including simple presentation
software and word processing to more complex data collection, analysis, and simulation—rather
than produce them (e.g., Collins & Halverson, 2009). These technology classes promote an
understanding of computers and software as black boxes where the inner workings are hidden to
users.
In contrast, working with e-textiles gives students the opportunity to grapple with the messiness
of technology; taking things apart, putting them back together, and experimenting with the
purposes and functions of technology makes computers accessible to students (Resnick, Berg, &
Eisenberg, 2000). When students like Tamieka design e-textile flowers, they begin to understand
the technological components and functionalities that are behind the shiny cases of their devices.
In other words, by engaging learners in designing e-textiles, educators can encourage students’
agency in problem solving and designing with technologies. This work can disrupt the trend that
puts students on the sidelines as consumers rather than producers of technology (see also
Buechley, 2010). Students must take up active roles in which they decide what needs to be
created, how to create it, and how to make it work through the many challenges and practicalities
of the design process.
<H2>Integration of Aesthetics
Our second theme, integrating aesthetics as a part of learning, foregrounds factors other than
functionality, or making things work, that are meaningful to students’ learning. Engineering and
technology often ignore aesthetics to appear to be purely factual and objective rather than to be
the innately human enterprises that they really are (Lemke, 2010). Yet aesthetics have long been
an intrinsic part of many STEM fields (Girod, 2007). Even Dewey (1934/1980) promoted
aesthetics in education as transformative in helping people re-envision the status quo and
challenge traditional structures of society. Likewise, Vygotsky (2004) argued that developing a
mastery of technology must accompany an expression of creative imagination—learning cannot
be separated from and can indeed be enhanced by artistry and aesthetics. Despite this, aesthetics
are little applied in schools today. At best, aesthetics are included purely in the hopes of
motivating or engaging students, or even as a “Trojan horse” made to interest students in
technology (Blikstein, 2013), but not to further their academic learning (e.g., Brickhouse,
Lowery, & Schultz, 2000).
However, the creation of e-textiles includes an explicit acknowledgement of aesthetics in
technical design. When Tamieka designed her e-textile flower, she attended to how her project
looked and functioned and, in the process, got deeper into learning about circuitry, programming,
and crafting. It is through this customization and attention to the overall process of creating an e-
textile project that aesthetics can play a role in learning as well as engagement. We suggest that
students must develop the skills and technical knowledge necessary to express themselves in any
medium, whether it involves more traditional media (such as clay, paint, pastels) or new media
(such as computers, conductive thread, LEDs), an argument that also has been made by
proponents of arts education (Groff, 2013). In this way students’ aesthetic and creative
expression must accompany and be accompanied by the technical learning as well, leading to a
consideration of the synergistic relationship between technological transparency and functional
aesthetics.
<H2>Diversifying Computing Fields
There has been a notable absence of women and minorities in computing in the past thirty years
(e.g., Cohoon & Aspray, 2006). These trends should not be surprising given that few students
ever encounter computer science at any point in their K–12 educations. Further, in the few US
high schools that offer an Advanced Placement (AP) course in computer science (only 5%
nation-wide), women and minorities represent less than twenty percent of AP test takers (College
Board, 2013). Most attempts to broaden participation in computing have focused on “unlocking
the clubhouse” of computer science in schools (Margolis & Fisher, 2002) with robotic
construction activities being the most popular example (Bers, 2012). While robotics competitions
are popular, they have not been successful in recruiting girls (Melchior, Cohen, Cutter & Leavitt,
2008-9). The Maker Movement has also been criticized for overemphasizing projects like robots
and drones and featuring primarily White, male creators in their magazines (Buechley, 2013).
The development of the LilyPad Arduino (Buechley, 2006) addresses some of the
abovementioned concerns. The!LilyPad!Arduino!includes!sewable!micro;controllers,!sensors,!
and!actuators,!which!can!be!used!to!teach!programming!and!engineering!concepts.!Because
LilyPad has made e-textiles accessible to novice designers and draws on multiple domains that
are traditionally gendered but relate to different groups, it provides a new venue for engaging
students. Textile crafting, such as sewing embroidery, crocheting and knitting, is traditionally
considered a feminine, “soft” (Parker, 1986/2011) activity in our society while engineering and
computing are considered masculine or “hard” (Oldenziel, 1999). While!e;textile!construction!
kits!are!similar!in!many!functional!aspects!to!robotics!construction!kits,!e;textile!kits!use!
soft!materials!rather!than!motors!and!gears,!and!they!incorporate!crafting!techniques!such!
as!sewing!that!historically!have!a!more!feminine!orientation.!E-textiles have been shown
successful in reaching out to new makers. In a study of LilyPad Arduino users (hobbyists)
posting projects on the web, Buechley and Hill (2010) found that a far higher percentage of
women use the LilyPad Arduino than the technologically identical Arduino. While the Arduino
is rectangular in shape and combined with other components using wire and solder, the LilyPad
Arduino takes on a circular shape and components are sewn together using conductive thread.
This suggests that a culturally hybrid construction kit, one that combines different materials (e.g.
a circuit board and cloth) and techniques from different traditions (e.g. sewing, programming),
can indeed attract different groups while still functionally engaging them in the same technical
complexities and challenging their preconceptions about what computing is, what applications it
can have, and who has expertise to do it.
In this paper we attend to each of these themes in turn while considering the relationship between
them throughout. Doing so allows us to unpack separately the importance and legitimacy of
transparency, aesthetics, and gender prior to reflecting on their complementary influences on
students’ learning and engagement with e-textiles. We will thus focus first on how making with
e-textiles can promote greater transparency of engineering and computing. This maker activity,
like many others, is rooted in Constructionist pedagogy (Papert, 1991) in which students take on
responsibility as designers rather than as consumers of technology. Having students create
technology runs contrary to longstanding educational practices that favor learning how to use
applications (Kafai & Burke, 2014). Secondly, we will focus on students’ personal aesthetics as
a key element in creative making. Most school artifacts such as homework and worksheets are
valued solely for their functional demonstration of learning technology—getting the right
solution is what is important. Instead we will illustrate how e-textile maker activities can
foreground aesthetics, improving students’ designs and also contributing to students’ deeper
engagement with electrical and computing concepts. Finally, we seek opportunities to break
down barriers to computing by changing students’ perspectives on what is possible with
computers and to whom they are accessible. We argue that e-textiles provide this opportunity
through integrating the so-called ‘high,’ masculine technologies of engineering and computing
with the arguably ‘low,’ feminine technologies of crafting and sewing (Faulkner, 2000; Parker,
1986/2011). By combining these historically gendered domains in unexpected ways that
simultaneously connect personal aesthetics with technical learning through transparency, e-
textiles disrupts students’ notions of what can be made and who can participate in technology
fields.
<H1>Context of E-textile Class, Students, Data Collection and Analyses
<H2>Designing and Implementing E-Textile Classes
The e-textiles class we explore here was composed of three workshops took place in the context
of a public magnet high school focused on science and technology in a large urban school district
in the Mid-Atlantic region. Over the course of the school year, 35 freshmen, 14-15 years old,
participated in the workshops. The students' self-identified demographic composition was 23%
African American, 29% Caucasian, 14% Asian, and 17% mixed race/ethnicity. Five students
opted to not identify their race/ethnicity in survey responses. Just under half of the participants
were girls (n=15). Overall, the racial and gender demographics of the class reflected the diversity
found in the school and district at large. In spite of students’ interests in science and technology
(as indicated by their choice to apply to this particular magnet school), only a few students had
any prior programming experience and none had ever worked with electronic textiles when they
elected to participate in the e-textiles class.
The e-textile workshops were offered to students as part of a partnership between the high school
and a local science museum. The science museum hosted activities for all ninth graders in the
school in the form of semi-formal workshops that took place at the museum one afternoon a
week during school year. Students could choose between several workshops, each lasting 4-6
weeks, taught by museum staff or volunteers, like the authors. This platform offered us, local
researchers interested in bringing e-textile making activities to students, the opportunity to
develop workshops for students. All of us had a background in teaching in out-of-school
learning environments and much of our collective research prior to this project focused on how
to bring activities that engaged youth in out-of-school spaces into the classroom environment
(see, for instance, Kafai & Fields, 2013). While we all had taught individual e-textile workshops
lasting an afternoon, we had not previously used the LilyPad Arduino and were interested in
having students work on multiple, computational e-textile projects of increasing complexity so
that we could better understand what they were learning and how this connected to school-based
computing and engineering classes. During each of our three workshops we met our students
once a week (for four weeks) for two-hour sessions in the museum space; not all students
participated in all three workshops but participating in the third workshop required some prior
experience with e-textiles. As ours were some of the first workshops, that we were aware of,
engaging K-12 students in computational designs with the LilyPad Arduino (rather than simple
circuits which typically took far less time) in school-based educational settings, we had no prior
models for projects to do with students. Thus we developed and iterated on the workshop content
in real time.
In the workshops students learned how to design and create their own e-textiles projects,
beginning with paper-and-pencil designs, followed by drawing circuit schematics, then sewing
and crafting their designs with textile materials, and finally programming the LilyPad Arduino
(see Image1). In the first of the three workshops, all students were novices and therefore the
activities built more slowly upon one another. Most students made basic e-textiles projects by
sewing simple circuits to connect 1-2 LED lights and programming them to turn on and off. In
the second and third workshops, roughly half of the students in the former, and all but one of the
students in the latter had prior experience with e-textiles. As students gained more experience
making (and we gained more experience teaching), their e-textile projects increased not only in
the complexity of circuit designs and programming code, but also in the sophistication of
crafting and sewing. Over the course of the three e-textile workshops, totaling 12 weeks and
more than 36 hours, students moved from making simple, blinking designs on textile felt to more
complex, wearable designs, including a hat inspired by anime symbols, a light up tote bag with
light-sensing handles, and a belt inspired by DNA’s double-helix structure (see Image 2).
<Image 2 NEAR HERE/ Image 2 Students’ final e-textile designs: Jack Skellington
patch with light up eyes to decorate a backpack (upper left), tote bag with light
sensing handles (upper right), anime-inspired hat (lower right), and wearable belt
with a double-helix DNA (lower left). Photographs by Deborah Fields and Kristin
Searle.>
We were not only interested in designing and instructing an e-textile workshop; we also set out
to explore how and what the students learned during the making activity. As such, we took the
roles of instructor, designer and researcher in this work. Our research approach used participant
observation (Spradley, 1980), as we simultaneously led workshops and collected data. Two of
the authors (Fields and Searle) were the primary teachers and data collectors, writing up notes
every week on observations. Details on data collection are available in the next section.
<H2>Documenting and Analyzing E-Textile Activities
While the above descriptions of the e-textile projects and classes break down making e-textiles
into different processes such as sewing, designing circuits, and writing code, in reality many of
these activities overlapped. Learning how to make circuits could not be separated from learning
how to sew and writing code, and vice versa. We believe that the interconnected nature of e-
textiles activities challenged students the most and fostered their learning. This interconnected
nature of making e-textiles also posed particular challenges to us as we documented and
analyzed students’ making and learning experiences in absence of any established measures and
instruments that could provide benchmarks of achievement. We thus opted for a documentation
process that included video recordings of groups to capture their conversations and activities as
well as photographs of students’ e-textile projects in various stages. We complemented these
data with daily field notes and interviews conducted with all students at the end of workshop. In
the interviews, we asked participants to discuss their e-textile projects and to reflect on activities
and experiences in the workshop such as why they chose to make a particular design, whether
they made any changes in their project as they moved through various making stages, what the
best part of making the project was, and what the hardest or most frustrating part was. For each
question, we asked students to recall a particular instance or to tell us a story, such as, “Can you
tell me a story about what it felt like when you got the lights on your project to turn on for the
first time?”
Making sense of and connecting these different data sources was an equally complex process. In
this paper we selected several students to illustrate the complex and intertwining themes of
transparency, aesthetics, and gender. These themes emerged emically from the data and were
developed only after substantial, systematic analyses of designs and activities in each workshop.
As a first step of data analyses, all video recordings of group interactions were logged, meaning
that the activities occurring on-screen were summarized in a minute-by-minute written
document, and all interviews were transcribed. We then conducted a two-step open coding
(Charmaz, 2000) of all our data (field notes, logged videos and transcribed interviews). We
began by reading a third of the data and listing some of the challenges of learning to design with
e-textiles. Then we created an initial coding scheme of the learning challenges, categorized by
the overlap of crafting, circuitry, and coding. By learning challenges we refer to the moments
where students struggled with getting their projects to work. Since we ourselves were relatively
new to teaching with e-textiles, we did not know what things students would grapple with and
used these moments to see what they learned. One example of such a challenge became
embodied in a code we called “the back is as important as the front.” When someone learns to
sew, s/he is usually taught that it’s okay for the back to be messy. However, when sewing with
uninsulated conductive thread, a messy back can lead to short circuits and a project that does not
light up. Through documentation of learning challenges, we identified this as one of the things
students struggled to and succeeded in learning.
We analytically coded one section of the data together to build consensus, and proceeded to
independently analytically code one workshop each. Through a combination of informal analytic
memos written to one another and repeated, group discussions of insights gleaned from the
sections that we coded independently, we then refined our coding scheme to reflect insights from
this analysis of the data and re-coded all workshops. We created a thesaurus of codes with
definitions and examples and indexed (i.e., counted) all codes, listing them by date with a one-
sentence summary. This allowed us to see which learning challenges were most prominent in
individual workshops or across workshops, if and how those challenges related to aesthetics, and
what role gender played in students’ perspectives on e-textiles. Our overall coding approach
focused on how students designed and re-designed their e-textiles to make them functional and
wearable. The changes and breakdowns in this re-design process became a productive lens for us
to understand how students improved in their understanding of circuit designs and programming
language. In other words, we were able to document students’ growing understanding of how
technology works.
After completing this broad analysis, we developed portfolios on the sixteen students who
participated in the third workshop to see how individuals’ design trajectories related to the
prevalent themes of transparency, aesthetics, and gender elicited in the broader coding. We
conducted “backwards and forwards mapping” (Putney, Green, Dixon, Duran, & Yeager, 2000)
tracing chronological developments in the students’ work. Specifically, we began with one
design decision and then traced it backwards to the circumstances that led to it, and traced it
forwards to the consequences of it. We compared these maps to students’ own reflections on the
design process as expressed in interviews. This process allowed us to compare students’ progress
horizontally (between students across the classes) and vertically (within each student over time)
for a fuller picture of what they learned, why they made specific design decisions, and how this
mattered for them personally. Below we discuss the most prevalent findings across all workshops
in regard to students’ learning and perspectives of e-textiles. Where appropriate, we include
student examples to illustrate how their learning related to aesthetics and transparency, and how
gender entered into making e-textiles.
<H1>Findings: Learning by Making with E-Textiles
<H2>Inside the Black Box: Encouraging Transparency with E-Textiles
Making e-textiles renders visible the basics of how computers and electronics work (Kafai,
Fields, & Searle, 2013). As students begin to attach individual lights to textiles, they come to
learn that sewing circuits is more similar to connecting them with wires or alligator clips (the
tools traditionally used to craft lighting circuits) than it is to sewing a button onto a shirt. Many
students begin by sewing on the lights as if they were buttons, taking the conductive thread and
sewing straight through both sides. However, lights have different properties than buttons, and in
order to direct electricity through the lights, students eventually learn that they must cut and tie
knots on each end of the thread to direct electricity through the light to turn it on. This principle
often eludes students when they connect circuits using alligator clips, even if they are able to
create a functional circuit. In sewing the circuit, the principle of forcing electricity through a
light to make it light up becomes clearer because they have to choose to cut thread to create that
electric pathway. When working with alligator clips, one rarely has to consciously cut a wire.
Similarly, loose threads on the back can short a circuit when uninsulated threads with a positive
charge and threads with a negative charge accidentally touch. Again, when using alligator clips,
one rarely has to worry about uninsulated wires touching each other because the alligator clips
are generally insulated with rubber or plastic coating.
We again return to the example of Tamieka’s e-textile flower design. First, she created multiple
drawings and layouts of her project as she learned how to design circuits; she progressed
through several increasingly technical iterations before she had an adequate design that fulfilled
both her aesthetic and technical vision. Then she had to sew it, a process that took several days
and much help from her friends, her teachers, and her grandmother. Indeed, Tamieka asserted
that the most difficult part of the project involved planning and sewing the circuits, “trying not to
cross the positive and the negatives... to keep checking back and forth.” She explained how she
had to keep looking between her circuit blueprint and her sewn e-textile so that she knew which
part went where and how the positive and negative threads were connected so that she did not
accidentally put things in the wrong place. Overcoming challenges like learning to avoid wire
crossing changed the way Tamieka thought about engineering and computing. Like other
students in the workshop series, she talked about how her project made her knowledgeable and
interested in electronics in a way she had not been before. We also noted that she even came in
during a special lunch session to learn how to use programming features such as variables,
conditionals, and nested loops to make the lights fade in and out. Her participation in this session
resulted in new computing knowledge that was integrated into her e-textile flower design and
into her sense of self as someone capable of programming. Her grandmother declared the project
“pretty good,” her friends raved about it, and Tamieka herself saw the flower as, “my first thing,
like my first big project, something I, uh, ... accomplished, and I'll give it to [my mom] so like,
so she can hold it for me.” Based on our observations and interview, making e-textiles incited
Tamieka’s budding interest in computing.
Tamieka’s experiences are illustrative of our broader findings about learning and the increased
transparency of computers for the students who attended the e-textile workshops (for more
details see Kafai, Fields, & Searle, 2013). The infusion of crafting into the domains of
electronics and code made the inner workings of circuits and programming more transparent. In
the process, students began to realize how complex computers are, and at the same time, found
them more approachable. In the end, John, an Aftrican American male with an interest in
programming, expressed sentiments about his new respect for computing, “I didn’t know it took
all this to light stuff up.” Similarly, Marcela, a White female of European descent, commented
that learning to program with e-textiles was much less intimidating and much easier to
understand than her experiences with other programming languages. Through overcoming
challenges, identifying problems, and generating solutions, students felt a sense of learning,
accomplishment, and even control over the computer. They became makers.
Because creating e-textiles involves knowledge in multiple domains, this type of making
introduces challenges that are particularly needed in schools. Rather than single right answers,
the kinds of challenges encountered in e-textiles encourage identifying the nature of a problem
out of many possibilities, considering a number of viable solutions and choosing the best
alternative. For instance, when Tamieka struggled with mapping back and forth between her
circuitry blueprint and her e-textile artifact to avoid crossing wires, she had already chosen from
a number of possible solutions that included insulating the conductive thread with a felt patch or
a piece of tape to allow for crossed wires or simply wiring in such a way as to avoid crossed
wires, even if it meant more sewing. For other students, problem solving was required when
they plugged their project into a computer for the first time and programmed it to make the lights
turn on. A light that did not work might be the result of a coding problem (forgetting to tell the
computer to turn the light on) or a myriad of possible circuitry problems. Students had to toggle
back and forth between the computer screen and the project itself until they could diagnose and
fix the problem to make the light work. Indeed, Sullivan (2008) argues that solving these types of
design problems helps learners develop intricate inquiry skills, including how to engage in an
iterative feedback loop of observation, testing, and evaluation of solutions. The physical
components of designing and crafting circuits enabled a transparency that facilitated engagement
with and learning of programming. Important to this process is the notion that the crafting cannot
be pulled apart from learning about circuits and programming—these three components were
deeply intertwined. In this interconnected and interdisciplinary context, crafting and aesthetics
are not simply add-ons to an otherwise technology-based activity, but instead, crafting and
sewing become an inextricable part of designing and programming electrical circuits. This
interconnectedness will become more important as we discuss the roles of aesthetics and gender
in students’ e-textile experiences. In the next section we focus on the ways that attending to the
functional aesthetics of projects further promoted this iterative learning process.
<H2>Beyond Functionality: Highlighting Aesthetics in E-Textile Designs
We discovered the importance of aesthetics the hard way in our e-textiles classes. In the
beginning we prioritized functionality as the key aspect of students’ designs. It was most
important to us that the lights worked and that students found some success in the engineering
and computational aspects of their projects. Yet, in the end, students who followed our
suggestion to make the simplest, working designs did not even want to keep them. They found
them unattractive and had little personal ownership over them. In contrast, students who went
beyond our original suggestions and incorporated artistic and attractive elements in their designs
not only felt more ownership of their work, but also created more challenging projects for
themselves. In subsequent classes we began to foreground aesthetics by encouraging students to
make drawings of what they wanted their project to look like before they understood all of the
components that would make them work. Of course, students had to redo their drawings multiple
times in order to incorporate the necessary elements of circuits and to allow for the greatest
flexibility of programming. In this process of redesigning on paper and on fabric, students faced
more complex challenges and were also more motivated to solve them to realize, desired
appearance, activity and interactivity (i.e., aspects of the aesthetics) in their projects. In the final
class, we traced the design process of every single student and found that attending to the
aesthetics in their projects motivated the richest learning, embodied in design alterations they
made in the process of reaching their aims (Fields, Searle, & Kafai, 2012).
To illustrate this process we introduce Amari, a 14 year old, Southeast Asian girl who was placed
in the second e-textiles workshop against her choice but eventually enrolled in the final e-textile
workshop of her own accord. In the beginning, Amari thought the class would be too “techie” for
her. However, when she saw that some of the primary materials were felt and thread, she began
to feel more comfortable: “The first day I thought that it'd be really confusing and I wouldn't like
it and I'd just be sitting there like "Oh, God."… But when I saw that they were just cutting felt, I
was like "Oh, I can - Oh, this is probably easy." Though she had no prior experience with
sewing, the “low-tech” nature of the craft materials and techniques like cutting made them seem
more accessible. Amari began by cutting a star out of white felt, sewing it onto a pink felt circle
and tentatively considering where to put the lights. She later reflected, “I just sewed it onto felt
and then I was like, ‘It's time for lights and techie stuff,’ and then slowly I started to understand
it.” She decided to put five lights on the points of the star and began to draw her design for how
they would connect to power sources and the LilyPad computer (see Image 3). At first, she just
put little dots for lights at each tip of the star, but with feedback from the teachers (Fields &
Searle) she drew in her blueprint the needed circuitry connections to the lights—after all, they
would not light up without a power source. She quickly realized that the design was becoming
too complex with too many lines of thread. This led her to consolidate all the negative
connections to the lights into a single line, or a common ground, that she traced around the
outside of her star, forming a circle. Amari proceeded to sew the lights to the LilyPad with
carefully orchestrated swirls then debugged her project (trimming the back) until every light
turned on.
<IMAGE 3 NEAR HERE/ IMAGE 3 Four iterations of Amari’s design process
from initial drawings (upper left) to sewing the lights (upper right) to recognizing
she could not program one light (lower left) to her final version with five lights that
faded in and out (lower right)>
Amari, like all students enrolled in the final workshop, included more sophisticated circuitry in
her project because of her desires for particular aesthetics. Similarly, 10 of 16 students sought
additional instruction on programming outside of class in order to design and program more
complex effects in their lighting. Making something both aesthetically pleasing and functional
became a space of creative tension that promoted learning (Fields, Kafai & Searle, 2012). The
inclusion of aesthetics played a crucial role in students’ learning because students became deeply
invested in their projects (as opposed to the simple, mostly throwaway projects made in the first
workshop) and were intrinsically motivated to learn more complex ways of doing things in order
to achieve their desired aesthetics. . This finding is particularly critical as schools have struggled
to connect STEM learning activities to students’ personal interests and everyday lives (e.g.,
Barton, Tan, & Rivet, 2008; Nasir & Hand, 2008). We suggest that other STEM fields might
benefit from these insights about aesthetics and learning by encouraging personal expression and
customization in student projects in ways that are authentically integrated with particular STEM
discipline, developing new kinds of activities that support students’ ownership and connection
with STEM (Buechley & Hill, 2010; Eglash, Gilbert, & Foster, 2013). This connectedness also
played a role in changing students’ perceptions about who can engage with STEM, an aspect that
we explore more fully in the following section.
<H2>Beyond Robotics: Opening New Clubhouses of Computing
E-textile maker activities also have the potential to diversify students’ perspectives on who can
and should participate in crafting, computing and engineering. Many students had preconceived
notions about which fields they and their peers would be most capable; their ideas seemed to be
based on cultural norms about traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” tasks (for more details
see Kafai & Peppler, 2013). Boys often talked about themselves as good at the coding and
circuitry aspects of e-textiles whether or not they had any prior experience in these areas in
practice. Likewise, many girls like Amari positioned themselves as more comfortable with
crafting whether or not they had any prior experience sewing or crafting. In this way, students’
ideas of what was a “girls’ domain” and what was a “boys’ domain” were heavily gendered and
influenced how they approached e-textiles, irrespective of prior experience. However, by the end
of the workshops, some of these norms had begun to shift: most boys were proudest of
completing the physical crafting task (e.g., sewing) while most girls became proudest of the
“techie” (e.g., coding) achievements in their projects. Repeatedly, girls in particular reflected that
they were initially worried about the “techie” elements of e-textiles but then learned what they
needed to learn, mitigating their initial concern..
Consider Kyra, an African-American 9
th
grade female, who like Tamieka and Amari, initially did
not see herself as confident or capable of programming her project. This, however, changed after
she spent some time crafting her project and became interested in learning about coding and
circuitry. Kyra herself was able to pinpoint the exact moment—as she connected the light on her
pink heart (see Image 4) with conductive thread and programmed it to blink—when she went
from being less comfortable to more comfortable with the computing aspects of e-textiles: “At
that point, I just felt like, this feels good—because I know how to do this. And I felt kinda like an
expert…. I'm proudest that it actually blinks.”
<IMAGE 4 NEAR HERE/ IMAGE 4 Kyra’s e-textile heart (left) and Lucas’ anime hat (center
and right)>
For Kyra and others, making a functioning project was a significant achievement. While this was
true for many students, we noticed that girls tended to be proudest of the “techie” elements while
boys tended to be proudest of their crafting achievements. Not surprisingly, the elements that felt
like the biggest accomplishments were also the elements from which students initially felt most
distanced. When asked about the most frustrating part of making her e-textile artifact, Kyra
discussed her experiences coding:
<EXT> Because, at first, I didn't know what to do. I was just like, coding? What do you
mean coding? …. But then after awhile, it was just, ok, this is easy. I get it. Just type in
this and type in that. Make this do that. So like you are the controller. You make it do
what you want it to do.
</EXT>In reflecting on her experiences with e-textiles, Kyra began to take on more of a “techie”
and “expert” identity. She did so by developing a better understanding of what programming
is—telling the computer exactly what to do and in what order. More importantly, Kyra was
always capable but she lacked confidence in the beginning. While not all of the girls in our study
were as comfortable as Kyra with taking on a “techie” identity, almost all of them expressed
satisfaction at knowing about circuitry and how to write computer code. Many girls’ perspectives
changed simply through having the opportunity to learn about something technical and, most
importantly, to do so through a medium (i.e., crafting and sewing) that felt comfortable for them.
This process made visible the inner workings of computing, and allowed for ample personal
aesthetics.
In contrast to Kyra and most girls in our study, many boys tended to see sewing as a means to an
end—a skill they used to complete the “techie” stuff—often reiterating stereotypes about sewing
and gender. For instance, early on Lucas, a White male student, proclaimed sewing to be “a girl’s
sport.” In the first workshop he sought every possible opportunity to avoid it and engaged
instead in programming in a language not applicable to e-textile projects. When we suggested
that e-textiles could be equally interesting and fun, he replied, “Oh yeah? Sticking yourself with
a needle is really fun.” For his first project, Lucas attempted to make a hat but failed because the
stiff backing of the hat made sewing difficult. In the second workshop, Lucas returned to the hat
but focused instead on applying an anime-inspired design (see Image 4). Lucas’ aesthetically
motivated persistence with the hat e-textile project is worth noting because he stated himself that,
“mainly I really don't create stuff physically but I like to do stuff on the computer.Yet he was
most proud of the yellow star he had cut out from a sheet of felt and affixed to his hat using iron-
on transfer paper. Lucas also reconsidered his thoughts on sewing as a girls’ sport when he
reflected on the idea of creating circuitry by sewing. As he told us in the debriefing interview
after his last class, “I think it's a[n] odd experience, considering. I'd never actually think that a
thing that I thought was a woman's sport until now would actually be a pretty fun thing.” This
change in attitude toward sewing is illustrative of Lucas and other boys’ altered perspectives on
what can qualify as a masculine activity, an important element of challenging hegemonic notions
of masculinity and making space for students’ multiple identities (Hull, Kenney, Marple, &
Forsman-Schneider, 2006; McCready, 2010; Pascoe, 2007). Perhaps even more importantly,
both boys and girls developed a new appreciation of how difficult sewing crafts were, shaping
new awareness of the expertise required for this type of activity.
In the end, many students struggled with reconciling their own conflicting notions of gender in
the activities involved in making e-textiles. Patrick, an African American male student, summed
up his experience in e-textile design by saying,
<EXT>I like the fact that you can use programming and sewing all together, because it's
kind of a weird mix. It's like hot sauce and ice cream at the same time. It's like, you'd
never think the two came together. It's kind of cool.
</EXT>It is this “weird mix” of crafting, circuitry, and programming in functionally aesthetic
ways that makes e-textiles a compelling context for bringing this particular maker activity into
schools. Patrick’s!quote,!and!the!ones!above,!illustrate!that!while!students!are!shifting!their!
ideas!about!who!can!do!crafting!and!computing!tasks,!the!persistent!cultural!framing!of!
these!two!tasks!as!different!from!each!other!suggests!that!their!gendered!understanding!of!
the!computing!and!crafting!have!not!faded!away!entirely.!Students can learn the kinds of
design-based technical skills that they would learn when engaging in robotics or 3D printing, but
they do so in a potentially more critical (perhaps even disruptive) way that forces them (and us)
to reexamine our taken-for-granted, gendered notions of who can do which tasks well, and what
it means to do those very tasks (Author, in press-b). These discussions around the gendering of
technology are important, because they bring pre-conceived notions related to gender out into the
open, even if they are not completely reconciled. This is an important first step, if we want to
open the clubhouse to those traditionally excluded—in this case women —while also creating
new clubhouses that promote more diverse computing activities like e-textiles.
<H1>Discussion
Maker activities like e-textiles promote the idea of students as designers and creators of
technology. Because e-textiles combine the seemingly disparate domains of crafting,
engineering, and computing, designing with e-textiles foregrounds important questions about
who is involved in making and what is being made . Not only does the act of creating e-textiles
help to make technology more transparent by revealing what underpins the design and
construction of circuits and programming of lights, the activity also demonstrate the importance
of aesthetics in learning. The relevance of aesthetics in learning is recognized by educational
theorists such as Dewey (1934/1980) and Vygotsky (2004) but little recognized in schooling in
general, and even less so in technology or engineering education. E-textiles also provide a
promising venue for revealing, and beginning to break down multiple barriers to participating in
computing for some students, young women as well as young men. The experiences of Tamieka,
Amari, Lucas, Kyra, and many other students demonstrate the ways that creating e-textiles
provided rich opportunities to create aesthetic designs that challenged, if not disrupted, students’
gendered notions of making with computer technologies.
<H2>Challenges to Integrating E-Textile Activities in Schools
One unique aspect of our research on e-textiles is that we conducted these activities as part of
students’ traditional school day rather than in after-school or out-of-school contexts (e.g.,
Peppler & Glosson, 2012). Introducing e-textile activities, like any new curricular activity, into
schools is a complex enterprise that brings with it the inherent challenges of changing the status
quo. Yet bringing these activities in schools can help make them accessible to a wider
population, including reaching out to students like Amari who may not choose to engage in them
of their own initiative. We hope that our documentation of students’ learning through e-textiles
can help to encourage opportunities like this in other schools that serve to disrupt notions of
what, how and who is learning with technology. In our case we have been able to create these
opportunities for high school students in short-term electives, first in a series of three, month-
long elective workshops for freshmen reported here, later in a quarter-long computer science
elective class (Kafai, Searle, Fields, Lee, Kaplan & Lui, 2014 ), and most recently in a university
special topics course (Fields & King, 2014; Lee & Fields, 2013). These electives provided us
with the freedom to structure learning projects that were student-driven, allowing aesthetics to
play a prominent role in design. Because we ourselves were the teachers, we were able to
implement a students-as-designers model in the classes. In addition, the students came from a
school where project-based learning was the norm. In other situations, implementing a students-
as-designers model might be more difficult to attain. Searle, for instance, has recently been
collaborating with a Native Studies teacher in an American Indian community and students’ e-
textiles designs have been constrained to themes that the Native Studies teacher is already
covering in class, even if students are not especially invested in these themes. A prescribed
curriculum, an extremely limited time period, or even students who are unaccustomed to project-
based learning are a few of the constraints we envision as potential obstacles to implementing a
students-as-designers model in other contexts.
Challenges to authentically integrating technologies into education are not new. Since the 1920’s
the adoption of new educational technologies— from film to radio to instructional television—
have faced the same implementation issues (Cuban, 1986). The reception of each new
technology went through a similar cycle of excitement, implementation, disillusionment and
blame. Cuban rightfully predicted that the latest educational technology, computers, would
follow the cycle of excitement, implementation, disillusionment and blame. What is to stop e-
textiles (and the maker movement in general) from following down this same path? In more
recent work, Cuban (2013) argues that the key to change lies not in the adoption of a new
technology, but rather in the development of an alternative view of students and teachers.
Viewing students as problem solvers and inquirers, and of teachers as coaches, guides, and
prodders requires a shift in educational practice and policy. In other words, our views of
students, teachers, and the role of the technology in education are as important as the technology
in and of itself.
<H2>Challenges to Disruptive Designs for Learning
One of our key arguments is that e-textiles can help to increase the participation of historically
marginalized groups— particularly girls and women— in computing. This is important because
despite the popularity of digital media with youth, on the whole, very few children are using their
devices—be it a laptop, iPad, iPhone, or Droid—for more than mass consumption of commercial
media (Kafai & Burke, 2014); and those that do are typically white, affluent males, highlighting
disparities by traditional gender, ethnic, and class divides (Kafai, Fields, & Searle, 2013). E-
textiles bring a welcome change to this situation by making technology designs transparent and
by illustrating in more accessible terms what lies behind the shiny screens that encase many
personal and mobile technologies popular with youth. Although there are other kinds of maker
activities that also engage students in creative designs, such as robotics or video game designs,
they often reproduce common digital divides of gender, race, and class (see Melchior et al.,
2008-9). In contrast, e-textiles have the potential to challenge traditional models of clubhouses of
computing by creating a culturally and epistemologically distinct model that, based on our and
others’ research, is more inclusive for underrepresented populations in computing that need it
most (Kafai, Searle, Martinez, & Brayboy, 2014).
However, it is also important to acknowledge that e-textiles can exploit, change, or reinforce
gendered notions of aesthetics and technology. For example, we capitalized on the girls’
(culturally gendered) initial affinity for crafting as entry point to computing. In addition, the
student reflections illustrated that gender norms continue to persist, even if girls feel more
aligned with technical aspects and boys feel more appreciative of crafting aspects of e-textiles. In
our study, the girls showed greater transitions than the boys by developing new identities as
“techie” kinds of people. While most boys, like Lucas, certainly found new appreciation for
more femininely characterized crafts like sewing, it did not necessarily open up new identities
for them with the same magnitude as it did for the girls. Perhaps one explanation for the greater
change in girls is the existing power dynamics that privilege scientific and technical knowledge
over crafting knowledge. Gaining knowledge from and aligning with more masculinized
domains, especially computer science, may have led to buy-in from the girls. Thus the
juxtaposition of contradictory activities such as crafting and computing in e-textiles might help
students to see their distinct gendered nature while at the same time unintentionally reinforcing
the very differences the activity was intended to eradicate. It is worth considering whether the
very notion of “disruption” may, in practice, reify what it is intended to change. However, we
suggest that at least in this case the disruptive e-textiles opened up new venues for discussion and
the opportunity to question traditional norms.
<H2. Introducing Hands On with Minds On Activities >
By valuing crafts as a relevant domain of expertise, e-textiles challenge and disrupt dominant
stereotypes of what kind of knowledge is academically valuable. Taking this a step further, we
see this as a chance to celebrate work done with one’s hands, whether primarily in crafting
domain or other hands-on work traditionally undervalued. Over the past fifty years, there has
been a trend in the field of education toward valuing abstraction rather than concrete work,
manifested in part in the denigration of vocational classes like shop and home economics (Rose,
2005). Rose (2012) traces the roots of the prioritization of the abstract over concrete in Western
society all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, with their devaluing of common craftsmen and
artisans. Bringing maker activities to schools allows us to highlight the importance of the hand to
the activities of the mind. Doing so might help educators to rethink the learning process. E-
textiles respect both hands-on problem-solving and practical design, as well as more minds-on
algorithms and abstract concepts. They also elevate hand crafts traditionally pushed to the side as
women’s work done at home. In sum, e-textiles provide opportunities for students and educators
to re-value the cognitive work done through one’s hands (Rose, 2005). This is often the same
craftwork done by students’ families and passed down through generations. These kinds of
connections between school and home work have been found essential in creating bridges
between different funds of knowledge available in communities (Moll & Gonzalez, 2004) and
valuing the expertise that students and their families can bring to school (Fields, 2010). Earlier
on, we learned how Tamieka connected with her grandmother by showing her e-textiles and
other students in our study often remarked on how their projects became the centerpiece of
family dinner conversation. In nondominant communities, parent involvement in schools is
often lacking because schools have a history of discriminatory practices and, especially in the era
of high-stakes testing, often feel very disconnected from families’ lives (Lareau & Horvat, 1999).
E-textiles may be one way to reverse that trend, with school becoming increasingly more
relevant to the kinds of work students and their families do outside of school. E-textiles can also
point the way toward other activities that value traditional home- and hand-based skills and may
find new value through creative integration with digital technologies: not only sewing but also
woodworking, painting, scrapbooking, cooking, and others as far as one can imagine.
<H1>Conclusion
Maker activities like e-textiles illustrate that it is important to involve students in creating in two
distinct modalities of learning: the digital and the material. Learning content and skills needs to
involve new domains that broaden contexts and perceptions of technological designs. Certainly,
e-textiles are only one type of hybrid activity that combines the digital and material in authentic,
aesthetic ways and can draw diverse groups of youth into identification with disciplines by
connecting seemingly abstract computing and concrete, hands-on, do-it-yourself craft.
We close by suggesting that e-textiles re-introduce a historical link between computing,
engineering, and traditionally women-led crafting that has been lost today’s curriculum with an
overly focus on academic. The “Analytical Engine,” a nineteenth century general-purpose
computer conceived (but never actually completed) by the mathematician Charles Babbage, was
based on the design of the mechanical Jacquard loom for weaving fashionable complex textiles
of the times. It was Ada Lovelace (1843), Babbage's aristocratic colleague, who wrote what is
considered the first computer program for that conceptual computer and linked together textiles
and computing. This historical and intimate relationship between fashion and computer science
has largely been forgotten and ignored. However e-textiles provide a way for Lovelace’s
pioneering spirit to return to field of education, and the maker movement at large. Her
innovations are born anew in the students’ designs that change colors, play music, and light in a
dance.
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<ACK>Acknowledgements
This work was supported by a collaborative grant (0855868/0855886) from the National Science
Foundation to Yasmin Kafai, Leah Buechley, and Kylie Peppler. Any opinions, findings, and
conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania,
or Utah State University.
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... Mentoring and role modeling are commonly used strategies in informal and formal CS education to recruit and retain women and underrepresented students [2,17,31,47]. Relatability and similarity to mentors/role models can have a positive impact on mentees' affect [5,6,40,43,48]. There is also evidence that sug- ...
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