The government has been allocating multi-billion Dollar budgets to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Several programs aim to educate girls about STEM and STEAM (STEM and arts). It’s a national goal to create equal opportunities for all genders and increase diversity in STEM fields.

We propose that the emerging values and social needs of middle school girls must be considered when creating learning experiences for them, and that appropriate design experiences can make engineering problems engaging and relatable. It has been shown that purposefulness is a critical factor for making engineering attractive to girls. Compared to boys, girls initially perceive engineering to be less socially impactful, yet girls place a higher value on social impact at an earlier age.

This paper provides a broad review of relevant literature. It is proposed that creative, innovative engineering activities with perceived social impact may motivate middle and high school girls and build their confidence in the ability to impact people’s lives with technology they create. This work tests this hypothesis using different forms of a design activity that enables students to collaboratively build personal and wearable smart devices. Examples of creations based upon this design toolkit include medical bracelets, physical activity monitoring, and other devices.

The paper outlines the development of the toolkit and design activity through various stages of abstraction, and provides novel ways of prototyping design experiences. Three stages of development are implemented and tested with adolescent girls, offering new working methods for the human-centered, iterative process of designing such a toolkit. The first stage of toolkit prototypes consists of sketch models with a physical and digital component; focus groups were used to gain in-depth qualitative data. The second stage of toolkit prototypes consists of cardboard prototypes that allow for interaction mimicking the final design experience. It was used to gather data on design interests of different gender and age groups. The third stage of toolkit prototypes, consisting of computing devices with a simple interface, allowed for conducting experimental workshops to quantitatively investigate participants’ self-efficacy and design and engineering interest both before and after the intervention.

A fundamental change in many girls’ mindset was observed in multiple experiments. Findings about requirements for design activities with similar goals are summarized and supported though responses of female middle-school students, who participated in the presented studies.

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