Tech Kit for Girls Aims to Lessen a Gender Gap

Slingshot’s kit challenges girls to solve a problem posed in the form of a story.  Credits: Rutgers Today

PISCATAWAY, NJ - The president’s daughter has been kidnapped. “This is where you come in,” read the typewritten, terse instructions. “You are the chosen one. The fate of Sasha’s life is in your hands. If you choose to accept this, open the enclosed briefcase.”

The story is fiction, thankfully – but the briefcase is real. The small metal box unlatches to reveal a miniature computer, display and cables, along with instructions to create a spy camera to help solve the kidnapping.

Created by a group of 19 students in their capstone course for the information technology and informatics major in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information (SCI), the briefcase is the first educational technology subscription kit designed to help girls 11-14 learn programming and technology skills.

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The project and company – both dubbed “Slingshot” –  are driven by a market need: the gender disparity in the technology field, notes Sree Vuthaluru, a capstone student leader. “Slingshot aims to lessen this gender gap by introducing technology and design concepts to girls at a young age.”

“There were 30,000 test takers for Advanced Placement computer science in 2014, and out of them, only 30 percent were female,” points out Nicole Yip, a leader of the capstone group, which pitched the project in May to a group of six judges at the annual ITI Showcase spring 2016 event. Only 25 percent of the computing workforce is female, while women hold only 17 percent of CIO positions in the U.S. information technology sector.

Using a story to reach and involve girls is beneficial, Yip says, "because we found that girls in that [11-14] age group are more engaged in story-based projects.” “Each kit comes with a story that makes the girl the main character ready to go out and solve a mission.”

Each month, the latest kit delivers a story along with parts, instructions and links to Slingshot’s website videos and community forum. All are aimed to equip girls to develop skills in problem solving, analysis, critical thinking, technology and programming. 

The company and kit idea were sketched and developed in about nine weeks, aided by the guidance and facilities of Rutgers Makerspace, part of the Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies.

“It’s easy for the students to talk about the stories,” explains Rick Anderson, director of Rutgers Makerspace, who worked with the capstone students throughout the spring semester. “The physical part is the challenge.They have to tell the story using pictures and objects so their project will integrate for the girls who  get the kits.”

Applying the “making” of things in educational curricula from grade school and beyond is a growing trend. Makerspaces – workshops offering tools and learning experiences to support people carrying their ideas –  are founded on "an openness to experiment, iterate, and create,” according to material from the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Project, among “artists, tech enthusiasts, engineers, builders, tinkerers and anyone else who has a passion for making things.”

For the Slingshot prototype, the ITI  capstone students met weekly at Rutgers Makerspace’s garage/workspace setting at 35 Berrue Circle on the Livingston Campus in Piscataway. Stocked with tools ranging from glue guns and screwdrivers to 3D printers and laser cutters, Makerspace is open for drop-in hours from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the week.

The students met at Makerspace to align parts ordered from manufacturers into a prototype and to build out the story and instructions for their target customer group. A hardware team built the prototype briefcase. A software team created an interface that supports a Scratch computer language program that the girls can program to operate the spy camera.

The end result: Using what’s she’s assembled right in the briefcase, the girl can take her photo and create a profile to help solve the kidnapping.

“It’s all kinds of making,” explains Anderson about how Makerspace was instrumental for the ITI project. “You’re making multiple media, robots and kits. They ‘3-D printed’ a camera mount, did vinyl cutting, used a Raspberry Pi [tiny computer] as part of the kit they assembled.”

To bring the product to market, the team pitched using Dragon Innovation, a manufacturing company, and KickStarter for funding the product and to prove the concept.

“I’d call it social hardware, because it’s ‘social media meets the hardware,’” says Anderson of Slingshot. “Their kits are part of their website. And their kits are part of the social [media] in the community [website]. And the kits are part of their stories.”

Sharon Stoerger, director of the Information, Technology, and Informatics program in SCI’s Department of Library and Information Science, says the capstone students are given a charge as they kick off their project: “Use what you’ve learned” in the course of their Rutgers career.

The course bridges a traditional classroom with the Makerspace and other out-of-classroom team meetings. It combines communications, science, business and entrepreneurship disciplines, Stoerger says –  along with doses of ingenuity and creativity. 

For a second story, the students built a prototype automated miniature car and outlined and pitched an education company focused on STEM to bring the subscription kit product to market. To bring the product to market, the team proposed using Dragon Innovation, a manufacturing company, and a KickStarter campaign to fund the product and further prove the concept.

About Rutgers MakerspaceAn open floor plan of classrooms, rooms for prototyping equipment, workshop, workstations, and offices, it is part of the Rutgers Center for Innovation Education within the Rutgers Division of Continuing Studies. Makerspace serves a diverse constituency within and outside the university: faculty, staff, students, K-12 teachers and students through programs focused on technology education, creativity and “do-it-yourself,” youth programs, user experience design and related areas.

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