I saw Ayah Bdeir speak at SXSWedu in March, and I’m still not over it. Her insights and contributions to the future of STEM as the founder and CEO of LittleBits cannot be understated. A critical component of the maker movement, LittleBits are used in classrooms and living rooms around the world to introduce kids to electrical engineering and design concepts. We adults at Learnography have been getting in on the fun too, and we have gained so much from the inquiry-based learning process.
The angel of LittleBits is in the details, though. As Ayah explained in her keynote session, each facet was designed to be gender neutral and intuitive to all learning styles. The bits are colour coded according to their function (power, wiring, etc.) and the core colours are blue, pink, green, and orange. The inclusion of pink has gone a long way toward making girls feel like LittleBits was made for them.
“Getting girls involved in STEM is one of the hidden missions of LittleBits,” said Ayah. As a woman who grew up feeling out of place in the world of engineering, she appreciates the need to break down the assumption that the STEM fields are somehow inherently masculine. To do that, she says, we need to actively encourage women to enter the space.
I can only imagine what it was like for Ayah to study at MIT, or in the Computer Engineering program at the American University of Beirut. I went to a Canadian university known for engineering, and the faculty was always engaged in initiatives to get more women enrolled. The prevailing notion was that these male-dominated environments are not welcoming to women, and if you’ve ever hung out in an IT department I think you’ll understand this perspective. The disparity in gender representation can lead to an ‘us vs. them’ attitude, and the self-perpetuating perception that the disparity is somehow based on gender aptitude. But while creating accepting spaces is an important piece of the puzzle, getting girls involved in STEM needs to start at a much younger age. Girls need to grow up in a world where STEM options are on the table, where their career prospects are not associated with their gender. If they are given only gender normative social toys like dolls, and deprived of logic toys like Legos, are we really surprised that they grow up to get liberal arts degrees and become communications professionals? (ahem)
LittleBits and tools like them, address the problem universities are facing at its root. With the bold choice of pink as one of the colours, Ayah is inviting girls to the table, telling teachers and parents that this is a tool for all genders. And empowering boys to play with pink toys is just as important as empowering girls to learn STEM.
The LittleBits kit comes with activities and instructions to create everything from a flashlight to a three-wheeler, but you can also go wild with the parts and invent entirely new electronics. The myriad of innovative ideas generated by LittleBits users are highlighted on the LittleBits website. My favourite project is a hamster monitor invented by an 11th grade girl for her science fair. I bet she did very well in the science fair, and that she has a bright future in animal research or systems design or something else altogether.
By encouraging young women to solve their own problems in their own ways, says Ayah, “we are preparing them for careers that haven’t been invented yet.” I am grateful and thankful we have someone like her out there innovating with us in mind.
Editor’s note: CUE leaders facilitated a Lesson Design Maker’s Faire meetup at SXSWedu this year and is proud to have SXSWedu as a Media Partner. Watch for continued collaborations in 2016-2017!
Kate Salmon (@CSCKate) is a Communications Specialist and general word nerd from Toronto, Ontario. With a BA in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, she continues her learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization. Learnography’s team of former educators are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, inspiring her to take on new challenges every day