E-Textiles program designed to attract kids -- especially girls -- to engineering


BENNINGTON -- The Bennington Free Library hosted on Tuesday the second of two grant-funded programs designed to turn children into "makers."

The program, entitled "E-Textiles" was run by Caleb Clark, faculty and chair of the Teaching with Technology Masters program at Marlboro College, a program that helps teachers learn how to integrate technology into their classrooms. Eighteen kids learned how, using conductive thread, a battery holder, some small LED bulbs, and what Clark referred to as a "twinkle chip," they could add blinking lights to anything they could use a needle and thread on.

As with the first program in the series, "Toy Hacking," which took place last month, E-Textiles was put on by Vermont Makers, and was made possible by funding from the Vermont Community Foundation Innovations and Collaborations grant. The grant, over the course of the summer, paid for 28 visits to 14 libraries across Vermont.

"What we're trying to do here," said Clark as the students were beginning to arrive, "is especially attract girls into the field of engineering." The group was about equally split between boys and girls, which is what Clark said he had hoped for. The program was marketed as gender neutral, Clark said, because, in his experience, while programs that are geared toward boys get a good mix, programs that are openly geared toward girls almost never get any boys.

Clark began the workshop by showing the students some examples of what could be created using this technique, including light up shirts, toys, posters, and accessories. "Believe it or not," he said, "This is engineering." In order to make the lights work, students had to sew thread into fabric from a central hub, which was in turn connected to a battery, to lights, and back again, creating a circuit. They had to be careful, however, about not overlapping any of their stitches, which would short-circuit the system.

Clark predicted before they began that it would not be the technology that stumped the kids, but the sewing, and he was largely correct. The goal of the workshop, he said, was to successfully create a thread circuit that allowed at least two lights to turn on when the battery was inserted. Half an hour into the three-hour class, that goal seemed far, far away. "We've got three hours," Clark said to calm the frustrated students, "We're just going to work together, help each other out, not panic, and try no to stab ourselves with needles."

"The first person to get two lights blinking by following these directions gets to help everyone else!" he joked, in between helping kids get their needles threaded.

At the end of the program, the kids got to take home all of the equipment they learned on, so that they could create their own LED masterpieces on their own.

Derek Carson can be reached for comment at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB


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