Will ‘Girly’ Tech Attract More Girls to Computer Programming?

By Benjamin Herold — July 08, 2015 6 min read
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Hoping to get more girls interested in coding and computer science, a New York City-based startup is giving a high-tech makeover to a traditionally feminine fashion accessory.

Meet Jewelbots, the programmable friendship bracelet for teens and tweens.

“There are a lot of tools out there for coding, but many are not as appealing to girls as they are to boys,” said Sara Chipps, Jewelbots’ founder and CEO. “Our goal was to find something that would inspire girls’ creativity in such a way that they would be motivated to learn to code.”

The new wearable technology, expected to hit the market in early 2016, includes LED lights and a small vibrating motor. Users can program their bracelets to light up when their friends come near, communicate in Morse-code like languages, integrate with their social media accounts, and more.

Jewelbots officials—including Chipps, who previously founded and led a national nonprofit aimed at teaching women to develop software—expect the product to do “killer” business with girls ages to 9 to 14.

But is “girly” tech the best way to get more women involved in computer science and the other science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) fields in which they remain heavily underrepresented?

Educators and experts consulted by Education Week expressed enthusiasm for Jewelbots, but raised questions about the company’s explicitly gendered approach, the extent to which girls are likely to take advantage of the bracelets’ more advanced programming opportunities, and the potential for Jewelbots to exacerbate already-difficult social dynamics among preteen girls.

“My feeling is that we want as many programmers as possible,” said Nancy Butler Songer, a STEM-education expert and the dean of the education school at Drexel University, in Philadelphia.

“This may not be the perfect thing for all girls,” Songer said, “but it should be one of the interesting toys available to kids this age to show them the range of things they can do with programming.”

Still Underrepresented

In recent years, gender gaps in K-12 students’ interest, self-confidence and performance in STEM-related fields have been well documented, prompting a wide range of proposed solutions and interventions.

An example: Boys are far more likely than girls to take the Advanced Placement computer science exam. A $5 million effort by Google and the College Board (which administers the exam) has helped, but girls still accounted for just 20 percent of test-takers in 2014.

Jewelbots officials cites such realities when making their pitch, arguing that “friendship bracelets for the iPhone era” have the potential to hold girls’ interest in STEM at a critical juncture in their academic development.

Songer, of Drexel, painted a more complex picture.

She said researchers have actually found “tremendous interest by girls [in elementary and middle school] in lots of different programming activities.”

The real challenge, Songer said, is in providing students—both girls and boys—with “immersive experiences” that can leverage and sustain their initial interest in ways that help them persist through later challenges, such as difficult coursework and their own self-doubts.

“Kids don’t want to do dumbed-down, boring activities,” Songer said. “They want to do things that challenge and fascinate them.”

That’s one reason the Drexel researcher is a bit hesitant about Jewelbots, despite describing them as “very cool.”

The bracelets don’t require much real programming to get started, Songer noted; out of the box, girls can easily set the devices up to vibrate or light up when a friend is near or when they want to send a message.

There are additional possibilities, however. Users can download a free app that allows for more complex functionality (think: added colors, coordinating with groups of friends, etc.) Jewelbots can also be programmed via an arduino, or small microprocessor, allowing users to write and upload their own code to program the bracelet in myriad ways—for example, to light up when your friend posts a photo of you on Instagram.

Chipps, the company’s founder, compared Jewelbots to the uber-popular computer game Minecraft, in which users can either play in an existing online universe or write their own modifications, create their own worlds, and even set up their own servers.

“It’s a super-profitable game that has taught tens of thousands of kids how to code,” she said. " We’re trying to do the same thing, just targeted towards girls.”

Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes?

It’s that gender-specific focus, though, that concerns Lisa Abel Palmieri.

“Sometimes we assume because it’s a piece of jewelry or something about decorating a house, that girls will be more drawn to it,” said Palmieri, who was recently named the head of school at Pittsburgh’s private Holy Family Academy after spending the past five years building a nationally renowned coding- and computational thinking program at the Ellis School, a prestigious all-girls private school in the city.

“In many ways, that’s actually perpetuating gender stereotypes,” she said.

At the Ellis School, and through a citywide network of “Tinker Squads” that she helped start, Palmieri said her focus was on creating opportunities for girls to take part in collaborative projects that focused on solving a real-world problem.

“The best way to engage girls in coding and STEM is by making learning contextualized,” she said. “We should help them understand what the big picture is and how learning technical things can help improve the lives of others.”

When given open-ended choices about how to apply programming skills, Palmieri said, her female students will occasionally choose something “girly,” but more often pick something designed to help others or improve their community.

“I’m not saying I never want a girl to build a friendship bracelet or create a light-up hairbrush,” she said. “If that’s what they really want, great. But as a leader of a program, I don’t want to force a stereotype onto them.”

Chipps and her co-founder Brooke Moreland, though, see it differently.

“I think a lot of these thoughts come from the perception that things girls are interested in are frivolous,” said Moreland, the company’s chief operating officer.

Rather than devalue girls’ interests, educators and product-developers should leverage their existing passions, Chipps said.

“I’ve been an engineer for 15 years, and I also love makeup and shoes and shopping at thrift stores,” she said. “I’d really like to live in a world where those two things can exist together.”

Meeting Girls Where They Are

The idea for a programmable friendship bracelet began with a question for teen and tween girls themselves, Chipps said: “We asked, ‘What can we build for you that would be exciting?’”

It’s the friendship and messaging components of Jewelbots that she is banking on to hook girls in.

“They love the idea of being able to send secret messages in class, of having their own secret language, of being notified their friends are nearby because their bracelets match,” Chipps explained.

One thing that Jewelbots won’t allow for: anonymity. Programming the social features of the bracelets will also require a “double opt-in,” meaning that both girls will have to agree to participate.

“Bullying is a huge problem, and we want to make sure we avoid that,” Chipps said.

Jewelbots is currently raising the remainder of its seed funding, with a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign set to launch today.

Photo courtesy of Jewelbots.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.