Future Mothers Of Invention

February 01, 1995 5 min read

Moreover, the CTE study found that boys, unlike girls, find the workings of technological tools themselves as interesting as the machines’ potential usefulness.

The trouble, center researchers say, is that the culture that has grown up around technology is more amenable to the masculine view. Even in schools, much of the software used mimics commercial computer games that appeal more to boys than to girls. This, the researchers maintain, may be one reason why women are underrepresented in technological fields.

With that in mind, the center has created Imagine, an educational software program and curriculum specifically designed to appeal to middle school-age girls and their particular take on technology. The hope is that it will engage them in technological design and engineering and ultimately draw them into those fields. “Boys are playing with these ideas a lot earlier than girls are,’' says Dorothy Bennett, one of the researchers who worked on the project. “You have to give girls permission to do that.’'

CTE, which is part of the Boston-based Education Development Center, began developing Imagine three years ago with funds from the Spencer Foundation and the National Science Foundation. In simple terms, the program provides user-friendly electronic tools to help girls design and bring to life their own inventions.

“What girls are interested in is problem solving,’' Bennett says. The program’s focus on design, she explains, gives girls a chance to do just that; they can create things that are esthetically beautiful and that affect other people. “Traditionally, when you get into engineering,’' Bennett notes, “you have to go through the physics and the mathematics before you can touch anything.’' Not so with Imagine. Without knowing much, if anything, about turbojets or silicon computer chips, girls can use the program to design their dream machines.

The students can work from scratch or use pre-existing parts stored in the program’s “warehouse.’' If they want, the girls can take these existing parts to the “customshop’’ for resizing and reshaping, or they can go there to create new parts for future use. Students enter the “workshop’’ to piece their creations together. There they can also add animation to show how the various parts function. As they work, students use text to label and describe the parts of their inventions. Several studies have shown that girls like to put their creations into some sort of context, so the program encourages them to write stories about their inventions.

The software is only one part of the total package. “There’s a whole curriculum framework that supports it,’' says project director Margaret Honey. That curriculum includes eight classroom units that introduce students to design concepts, a technical guide to the Imagine program, and an experimental multimedia program called “ImagineTour,’' developed to help teachers see how the whole package might fit into what they’re already doing. Among other things, ImagineTour suggests a variety of curricular activities, provides samples of student work, and describes a range of design techniques.

As part of the overall program, girls are encouraged to bring in photographs or drawings of designers and inventors, to identify things designed in more than one way (such as telephones), and to begin to think in more sophisticated ways about how users’ needs affect design. All of these activities are aimed at humanizing the subject matter and encouraging girls to begin to think of themselves as designers.

Honey and her colleagues tested the entire Imagine package twice with small groups of girls at a New York middle school for students who are gifted in nontraditional ways. The first test, conducted three years ago with six 11- to 13-year-olds, suggested there were some bugs to work out. For example, two of the girls were unable to produce a computer design because they spent an inordinate amount of time struggling to draw their devices and parts freehand. As a result, the researchers created the “warehouse,’' stocked with a supply of ready-made parts.

Of the nine girls in the second test, all were able to use the software to elaborate on at least one of their design ideas. Six went beyond designing the kinds of domestic and problem-solving devices that adolescent girls typically had come up with in the center’s previous studies. Their futuristic inventions included manufacturing machines and computer-controlled products that transformed things or translated data--designs, the researchers contend, that represent a key extension of girls’ technological imaginings. Moreover, nearly all of the students were able to describe how the form of their inventions related to function, and most drew details showing how the parts worked together.

What is less clear, the researchers say, is how the program would work in a coeducational setting. “These girls became very much a group and had particular ideas about what it is that technology should facilitate,’' Bennett says. “They came up freely and talked about their fears of looking inside a machine.’' Would the same thing happen, she wonders, in a classroom that included boys who were coming up with powerful, futuristic ideas involving things such as turbojets. “Will girls’ voices be heard?’' she asks. “Or will teachers get sort of dazzled by all that stuff?’'

To provide a supportive lifeline to girls in those situations, Bennett is heading up another initiative, also funded by the National Science Foundation, to create an electronic network linking young girls interested in technology with women already accomplished in technological fields.

The task now facing those who developed Imagine is to get the program into the hands of young adolescent girls. They are currently talking with educational software publishers interested in marketing the program and with children’s museum directors who would like to use Imagine as a hands-on exhibit.

It is Bennett’s hope that the program will help open up the curriculum and provide an avenue for girls to enter the technological world. Who knows, she says, “maybe we’ll see some new and interesting things in design as a result.’'
--Debra Viadero

For more information about Imagine, call (212) 807-4209.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Future Mothers Of Invention