January 24, 2017

Students create wearable tech to learn computer science

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Brianna Maldonado held her hands still as Eva Snyder sewed a sensor into the knit glove Maldonado wore. They and their 11th grade classmates at String Theory’s Performance Arts School in Philadelphia were taking part in an e-textile lesson created by Penn GSE’s Yasmin Kafai. Professor Kafai, chair of Penn GSE’s Teaching, Learning and Leadership division, is renowned for her pioneering research around learning and electronic gaming.

The activity blended sewing and computer programming to create wearable technology, like gloves and headbands, which could monitor the wearer’s skin temperature. Once Snyder finished connecting the sensor to a laptop with conductive thread, she waited for lights in the glove to display the sweat level on Maldonado’s skin. 

But the lights stayed off.

The stitching was strong. The issue, they reasoned, must be in the computer code. They went back to their laptop to look for an error, with help from Justice Walker, a Penn GSE doctoral student helping to teach the class. After a few changes, the lights glowed blue and orange. 

“It’s trial and error,” Maldonado said. “This is the first time we’ve done this, but we can see how it works.” 

Students  Dominique Gatta and Kaylee Fiocca work with Penn GSE researcher Debora Lui

Kafai, Penn GSE postdoctoral research fellow Debora Lui, and Walker are creating a curriculum that uses wearable technology—the same idea behind best-selling Fitbits and Apple Watches—to teach students to code. Kafai and her team are working with partners in the Exploring Computer Science project, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. 

After the prototype class at String Theory in the fall, the curriculum was rolled out in the Los Angles Unified School District earlier this month. Eventually, it will be available nationally.

The goal is to introduce students to the technology that powers the “black box” devices in students’ lives, like smartphones and computers, Kafai said. 

“The electronic textiles showcase the circuitry that underlies the functionalities, like what happens when you press a button,” Kafai said. “Those aspects are educationally rich, even though they are hard to do, because you have to learn some manual crafting skills, whether you solder wires or stitch them with conductive thread.”

The curriculum Kafai is developing will serve as an alternative to computer science classes that teach coding through building robots. By incorporating elements of fashion design, Kafai hopes to interest a wider range of students in computer science – particularly girls.

Students in the String Theory life science and biotechnology class enjoyed the merging of high and low technology. Most said they had never sewed before. A few students said they don’t plan to pursue a career in programming but were glad they learned two different skills.

A close-up of students sewing with conductive thread

That, said Walker, was the point.

“We’re trying to connect learning about computers with something more personal,” Walker said. “This is a lower tech version of what’s on the market and what’s in development.

“This is going to be in the background of everything in the world. They need to at least understand enough about the technology. For some of them, they’re really taking off. For some of them, it’s really hard, but it’s a good hard.”