Project Spotlight: Smart Clothing, Smart Girls

Project Spotlight: Smart Clothing, Smart Girls

Thursday, April 23, 2015

STELAR had the opportunity to speak with Lucy Dunne (University of Minnesota), about the Smart Clothing, Smart Girls project, which is a collaborative strategy project with Cornell University using apparel design as a vehicle to attract middle school girls to STEM learning and engineering careers. Based on a theoretical framework that supports mechanisms for engaging young, female participants in STEM, the project team has thoughtfully designed an intervention that is hands-on, collaborative, and relevant - all combinations that have shown to improve how girls develop STEM identities, build self efficacy, and become motivated to pursue STEM-related activities.

*     Can you share how your ITEST project impacts youth?

Smart Clothing, Smart Girls (now transitioning to our new name, Style Engineers) engages middle school girls in STEM careers by highlighting the STEM content in fashion and apparel design. We've developed a curriculum of informal learning experiences that introduce girls to things like geometry and spatial manipulation, electronics, impact protection, and thermal transfer by exploring the properties of clothing and learning how clothing is designed. We also introduce the girls to technologies used in clothing design (everything from the basic sewing machine to high-tech equipment like 3D body scanners and virtual clothing design software) and to exciting role models working in very different kinds of clothing design (fashion designers, sports clothing designers, space suit designers, and more!) 

*     What excites you most about the work you do every day?

This kind of content is very rarely used in the context of STEM learning, and it's really exciting to see girls get enthusiastic about what they're doing. Last summer we brought in a hip-hop dancer to help the girls explore patternmaking for mobility and design for impact protection. They each designed a pair of knee pads capable of protecting their knees during a knee-spin move while also allowing them to dance easily. We had a great time and they managed to meet the design challenge! 

*     What do you think is the most important learning in this area based on your project work to-date?

Because this age group has so little exposure to our topic area, we've learned a lot about naive understanding in the various STEM areas we are focusing on. For example, we've discovered some interesting areas that are particularly challenging for spatial visualization in trying to understand how garment patterns are shaped in 2 dimensions to create a particular 3D shape -- this is helping us to understand the kind of geometry challenges that all of our student designers encounter (including our university undergraduates). 

*     What strategies have you found most effective for sharing your project’s work and findings with broader audiences?

We've had a lot of enthusiasm from community partners around this topic. So far (since we are mid-way through our project) we've relied only on word of mouth and conference presentations to get the word out and it has resulted in almost more interest than we can manage. However, this year we've been focusing on packaging our content and curriculum for a broader audience, and we hope to launch later this spring!