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School of Informatics and Computing e-textiles camp brings together Girl Scouts, tech

First-ever event teaches girls how to use computers, circuits to create unique items

(This article originally appeared in Inside IU Bloomington:

The Girl Scouts are known for their expertise in community service, cookies and a host of other areas.

Add e-textiles and 3-D printers to that list.

Bringing together young women and technology was the goal of the first-ever E-Textile Summer Camp at the IU School of Informatics and Computing, which teamed up with the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana to teach 18 girls about computers, programming and how to use circuits and other electronics to create unique items.

"Research shows that it’s critical for girls in this age group to get involved in computing before they think computing is not for them," said associate professor of informatics Katie Siek, who served as the leader of the event and built the curriculum. "I use e-textiles in my research, and I also am really motivated by the work of Leah Buechley of the MIT Media Lab, who created the LilyPad Arduino. She created a curriculum with the LilyPad Arduino that got girls involved in computing and excited about it. I built on that curriculum."

Sessions focusing on creating 3-D printed models and using a laser cutter were also part of the equation, but the work with the LilyPad Arduino and e-textiles was the star of the show. The LilyPad Arduino is a microcontroller board designed for wearables and e-textiles that can be sewn into fabric via conductive thread. Using an input, such as a temperature or light sensors, items were designed and created that would illuminate LED lights.

The campers built their own projects, which included light-up skirts, light-sensitive headbands, a temperature-sensitive pillow, and a musical, illuminated scarf, among others. The projects were then put on display during a fashion show to close the camp.

Jaime Hubbard, the program development manager of Girl Scouts of Central Indiana who also coordinates the science, technology, engineering and mathematics components of events, believes the camp fit perfectly with the Girl Scouts' goal of exposing young women to non-traditional careers and educational opportunities.

"We figured e-textiles would be a great opportunity for the girls to learn how to build circuits and try computer programming in a fun and engaging way," Hubbard said. "It’s in a non-threatening way, too. You’re taking something they already know -- the arts and crafts side of it -- and mixing in these higher-level skills."

Siek was impressed with the way the girls attacked the projects.

"They’re incredibly hard working," Siek said. "I never stopped for a break, and when the counselors would suggest we take a break, the girls would groan. It was kind of cool that they didn’t want to take a break. They were just going, going, going."

The four-day camp included an opportunity for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to get a hint of what college life is all about, and some of the campers are already looking forward to next year. Siek plans on making a few adjustments to next summer's curriculum based on what she learned this year.

"I would restructure it so we had more time building," Siek said. "A lot of them wanted to just keep building. I was thinking that these girls wouldn’t want to come back because of how hard they were working, but then they started asking about what we would be doing next year, if we would do something different. So for the girls who come back next year, we will have some different challenges that will be able to scale really well."

Siek hopes the E-Textile Summer Camp will open the door to the possibilities of technology and instill confidence in the campers.

"I hope they felt empowered by it, to see that if they just take a moment to think through what they’re working on, they can do it," Siek said. "They created a lot of objects that were only in their imagination at the beginning of the camp, so I’m really proud of them."

The camp aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a vibrant community of scholars and becoming a culture of building and making.