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Hack this then that

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - PCC Sylvania Lab Tech Michelle Guckenheimer gives a hi-five to student Miranda O. Salinas after she finished her wearable tech bracelet that lights up.The girl with the light-up hoodie is looking pretty happy.

Madeline Pitoby, a Southridge High School freshman, stayed late at the Wearable Tech camp for girls Monday night. She wanted to get a jump on the big project of the week. She's sporting the Shark hoodie that she worked on with Erik Thomas, a casual employee and an engineering student at PCC Sylvania. The design is “Shark Week never ends” and the lighted eyes on her jacket were programmed to come on automatically in the dark.

The camp, held last week at the MakerSpace at Portland Community College Sylvania, is for minority girls only, which in this case is largely Latina. It’s free, but participants have to be keen. The idea is to get girls interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) with a fun fashion project.

Pitoby already uses a PC at home on which her dad installed Ubuntu, the free operating system. She has learned to program it to say hello when it turns on, and worked with her step-father to make bots on Twitter that answer comments.

“The hoodie is part of my own unique punkish thing,” she says of her style, which she says mixes uniforms, pastels and bright colors. The camp, she says, really is teaching her the basics of electronics.

It’s a Tuesday and the 15 girls are squeezed into a plain room in the science block. There are beats coming from a speaker hooked to someone’s phone, healthy snacks on the coffee table, and a genuine buzz of activity. Some girls are hammering, some sewing.

The promise of this computerized hoodie is great. Using an Arduino Lilypad (a flat, waterproof computer that looks like a brooch) sewn into the fabric, students can rig up lights, beepers and buzzers that are triggered by light, sound and motion. All the sensors come in a $60 Arduino kit.

Madeline Pitoby shows off her Shark Week never ends hoody with built in lights and sounds“You could set up your jacket to buzz if you someone came up too close behind you,” says Gregg Meyer, appealing to the girls’ sense of mischief and privacy.

Code and cake

Meyer is a PCC Engineering professor who leads the camp.

“I use the analogy it’s like making a cake,” he says of programming the controller.

“You gather ingredients, that’s writing code. You bake the cake — compile the code. You serve the cake — transfer it from the computer into the Arduino. Finally you eat the cake — turn it on and let the program run.”

On Day One they made charm necklaces to get used to the MakerSpace’s tools. So, hanging from a wooden crescent which has their name inscribed by a laser cutter, there’s a little bird (3D-printed in rough white plastic), a fish that was cast in pewter in a mold of white, plasticky Teflon, which was carved on a CNC router, a copper disc which was stenciled in vinyl and etched with chemicals, and a plastic shape made on a desktop injection molding machine.

On Day Two they were sewing fabric bracelets which lit up when they closed the metal snap. Battery, LED, conductive thread: these are the basic components of wearables that have reached fashion, with beautiful gowns festooned in lights and trousers that bleep and buzz.

Some of these young women are already quite driven.

Zaira Montes, a Junior at Sunset, was there because her teacher knows she wants to be a fashion designer.

Naomi Tellez who attends Beaverton Health and Science is in the Oregon Leadership Institution and already taking college credits.

“I want to be a biomedical engineer, working on medications,” she says. “I’m more into science than fashion, but I’m doing this to gain experience and see if I want to take an engineering course.”

Another teacher, Linda Browning, an Adviser for Engineering Technology at PCC, said keeping boys out made the interactions different.

“When you have students who have skills already, they get impatient with people who don’t. So with things like the vices and clamps, boys might have just taken over and started using them. We just stepped back and the girls became comfortable very fast.”

Cindy Guzman of Forest Grove, who was taught to sew by her mom, was designing her hoodie with pulsing lights that track the volume of the music on her MP3 player. Guzman, who wants to be an anthropologist, appreciates being exposed to the high tech tools they don’t have at her school.

“It wouldn’t matter if there were boys around,” she said, confidently.

Another of the teachers, PCC Biologist Josephine Pino, said the point of the camp is to break down silos between departments and disciplines, and to promote learning by doing. In the PCC robotics camp, kids worked with the sculpture department to hack Roomba robot vacuums, which the theater class used in a skit.

“For example, my students collect bugs. How do you build a beetle trap?” says Pino. “Come talk to some engineers! I think our education system doesn’t have cross talk between the disciplines.”

“It’s broken from kindergarten through university,” chips in Meyer.

“But the Maker movement is a way people are starting to break that down,” adds Pino, who has an academic friend in Baltimore whose biologists are 3D printing mesh plastic containers for growing yeast colonies for harvesting DNA. “...Because it’s cheaper,” she says.

Learning by doing. Cross discipline synergies. Fun. They all belong together for the other creator of the Wearable Tech camp, Dieterich Steinmetz.

He hopes to help fix Oregon’s poor academic performance in STEM subjects.

“Only three to five per cent of students who start high school graduate (in STEM). In other countries it’s 20 to 30 per cent. Even in other parts of the USA it’s three or four times us. Oregon is simply not graduating very many students in science.”

Steinmetz says many students “peel away” from science, especially engineering, because they don’t have a positive first experience.

“First year college students who choose not to go on says it’s not very interesting and the work is too hard compared to their peers. We’re trying to make that first experiences engaging, so they don’t learn theory first and application later. That’s why you see all these cool machines in here.”

Industry is also keen to see more STEM-literate graduates.

Gregg Meyer says, “As an engineering instructor, I’m dismayed on the first day of term when I see I have one or two women in class out of 30. At companies like Intel, the demographics are split evenly. Instead of adding to the demographics, we’re starving them.”

The camp is funded by a grant from the Oregon Department of Education and is part of the “40-40-20” initiative.

“The biggest gap is in that middle 40 percent. We’re not coming close to 40 percent receiving a certificate or two-year degree. Community colleges are a big part of that 40 percent,” say Steinmetz.

After finishing the bracelets, the girls repair to the computer lab. This is where the digital rubber hits the road. Sewing with conductive thread, or sewing on a snap that completes a circuit, they are old-school, analog practices. Coding is different. Strings of letters and punctuation appear on their screens.

Can these girls learn to code today? “Of course,” says Meyer. “You think, ‘Here, I change this 5 to a 10 and the light blinks slower or faster.’ That’s how I learned.

I took one class, the rest has been a hack. A scientist needs to know why something works. An engineer likes to know why, but if they don’t, they use it anyway. Because they’ve got things to do.”

In this lab they unbox their Arduinos with big smiles. As they plug them in the LEDs and their faces light up simultaneously. They are there to learn about abstractions like inputs and outputs, sketches and “If this then, thats.” And then turn them into concrete things.

Then the teaching assistants dutifully run through the cake baking analogy. It’s a bit of a hack, but it does the job.