Lyn Gomes, mechanical engineer and avid Maker, discusses how a hairdryer works with students in a Techbridge after-school program.

Today we share a post by Linda Kekelis of Techbridge.

Techbridge role model, Lyn Gomes, experienced the joy of tinkering from her early maker experiences. Lacking her own tool kit, she would “borrow” her father’s eyeglass screwdrivers to repair the answering machine. This gave her the confidence to work with larger tools and take on projects like repairing her first car and building a Motorized Barcalounger. What she didn’t know is how they would shape the direction of her life. Maker projects set her on the path to finding a career that has provided her with a lifetime of personal and professional rewards.  Like Lyn, many engineers describe tinkering and taking things apart when they recount their earliest interest in their field.

Missed opportunities

Unfortunately, many kids don’t have the chance to tinker at home or work with tools in machine shop classes. Kids today have less time to work with their hands and less chance to wonder how things work or design and build projects that answer their own questions.

For girls and underrepresented minorities the chances of making things with their hands are even more remote. We hear from girls in Techbridge that their brothers get building blocks and Lego kits as birthday and holiday gifts. Their brothers work on home improvement projects or car repairs. It’s not that girls don’t want to work on these projects but that they don’t ask and their parents don’t think of inviting them to get involved.

Girl solders game

A Techbridge girl solders components onto a circuit board to make her own electronic board game.

Making time for making

Out-of-school time experiences can provide the time and space for making. After-school and summer programs offer kids the chance to try their hand at soldering and learning about circuits or taking apart toys and learning about gears.

Soldering an LED butterfly combines a fun lesson on circuits and artistic expression.

Techbridge was launched in 2000 to inspire girls in science, technology, and engineering. In after-school and summer programs, Techbridge girls work on projects that introduce them to the joys of making. The electronic game board and the tilt lantern are just two of the maker projects that Techbridge girls have built. Through these projects, the girls work with tools, troubleshoot, and develop confidence and perseverance that serve them well in their academic and career paths.

Techbridge serves 500 girls annually in grades 5 through 12, primarily working in under-resourced communities. Evaluation results demonstrate the program’s success: last year, 95% of participating girls knew more about how things work, 89% felt more confident trying new things, and 95% believed that engineering is a good career for women.

Techbridge girls got introduced to one of their first maker experiences by Lyn. Lyn arrived on her first visit with a box filled with hair dryers. She invited the girls to take apart the hair dryers and see what they could learn. Lyn remembered her own early experiences with reverse engineering and offered our girls the same opportunity to learn first-hand how things work. It also gave them a safe setting to develop the fine motor skills associated with using tools.

“Can I really take it apart? Is it all right to break it?” One of the sixth graders wanted reassurance before she took apart the hairdryer. When this girl tried to figure out what made a curling iron work by taking it apart at home her mother hadn’t been too pleased. Lyn assured the girl that it was all right if the hair dryer got broken in the process.

Lyn used this hands-on activity as a way to introduce engineering. The girls learned about the different kinds of engineers who design and build hairdryers and other products in their lives. They also discovered the joy of figuring out how things work. Lyn invited the group to come up with design plans to improve upon the hairdryers. There was no shortage of inventive ideas—like a filter to collect hair and a dispenser to produce fragrance. By the end of the afternoon the girls learned that household appliances like a hair dryer aren’t as complicated as they imagined and that engineering can be a very rewarding career.

Be a role model

Don’t let a maker project be a missed opportunity. What made the experience of taking apart those hairdryers so impactful was Lyn. Lyn communicated her passion for engineering and for making.  She was genuinely interested in the girls and it showed. During her visit Lyn moved around and talked to each girl, connecting with the girls on a personal level.  For the girl who didn’t have the confidence to raise her hand and ask a question before the group, Lyn’s one-on-one time was especially helpful. All the while Lyn showed how cool working with tools and doing maker projects can be.

When you engage kids in a maker activity, remember that you can be a role model. From our experiences, we have a recipe for success that we’d like to share.

  • Be personal and passionate. Kids are eager to hear about your work and also about your hobbies, pets, family, and friends. If you happen to be an engineer, you can dispel those stereotypes about “nerdy engineers” by sharing stories that reveal your passions and making personal connections with the group. Remember that kids get excited about engineering and technology when you share your own passion for your work and interest in making.
  • Explain why your work matters. We hear from kids how they want to make the world a better place, and they might not know how tinkering and technology can do that. It’s up to you to share how your work matters and helps the environment and people. As engineers and scientists we help people, we just may never meet the people we help like a doctor would.
  • Offer resources and guidance. Where can they go to tinker and work with tools? In our community, there are libraries that lend tools. Find resources like a library or community center where kids can work on maker projects. Talk about the importance of summer programs and after-school clubs in your own development and encourage them to pursue making interests.

We know that not every girl or boy who makes will grow up to be an engineer, but we hope that each will experience the joys of tinkering and the confidence to make their own discoveries.

We have seen first-hand how impactful making can be for kids, especially for girls and those who are underrepresented in engineering and technology.  There are lots of kids that need a supportive adult to encourage them in making. We invite you to get involved and reach out to kids in your community. 

You have the power to inspire the next generation of Makers.

This post was written by Linda Kekelis, Executive Director at Techbridge, who is discovering the Maker within herself with a little help from her staff and the girls served by Techbridge.To learn more about Techbridge, visit techbridgegirls.org.

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