High School Girls Create Their Own Wearables at MIT Workshop

Mechanical engineer Kristen Railey gathered 50 high school girls at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, MA, one Saturday in December. When the researcher who builds and programs military robots for the lab asked the students to close their eyes and imagine what an engineer looks like, only six said they imagined somebody like Railey, a young woman just a few years older than themselves.

That's exactly why Railey, an MIT engineering graduate, had organized the first one-day "Make Your Own Wearables" workshop for teenage girls that the Massachusetts Institute for Technology had ever held.

"My goals were to spark girls' interest in engineering through the trendy topic of wearables and to equip them with hands-on engineering skills before college," said Rainey, who knew about a Verizon study that found that girls who became interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) early were more likely to pursue it in college.

Railey targeted girls in grades 9-12 for the first workshop because "girls in this group are applying to college, picking their freshman classes, declaring majors and thinking about possible careers."

The day started with an introduction by Katy Olesnavage, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT who described her work on a next-generation prosthetic foot for amputees in the developing world, and a rundown on the science behind Wristify, a bracelet that sends waves of heating and cooling to the wearer's wrist.

Next, the girls moved on to a 3D printer where they worked in pairs to create 3D models of the bracelets they had just learned about. After lunch, the teams programmed robots to build peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before capping the day off by building a shoe-wearable electronic circuit with LED lights and a pressure sensor. Together, teams created their own shoes that flashed red lights.

"The girls were really amazed that their codes worked," Railey said. "Their faces lit up as they walked and saw their own shoes flashing red."

Railey is planning a second workshop this year, this time on the main MIT campus in order to attract girls from urban neighborhoods in Boston.

In the meantime, she will stay in touch with last year's participants via social media and the blog on her Web site, Girls Who Build.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.