Girls, STEM, and Making: a half-decade (on and off) at LESGC

Programs that target girls and and STEM (science, technology, education, and math) have become almost trendy. But as recently as 2010, when Maker Faire debuted in New York, there were very few organizations that aimed to connect girls to materials and information resources that would make science, technology, engineering, or math, more appealing.

After reading about the Lower Eastside Girls Club’s “Girlzilla” robot at the first New York Maker Faire, where I was also involved as an exhibitor (my design company, DuKode, was showing an early bike light helmet project called Lumenhattio), I emailed the girls club soon thereafter paid the club–or the LESGC– a visit at their first street headquarters. I met some of their core members, including Jenny Dembrow, Jennifer Sugg, and Dave Pentecost, who was the maker man of the LESGC and the husband of LESGC founder Lyn Pentecost. I learned that the LESGC had been around for a few decades, was founded at a time when there were very few resources for low-income girls in the predominantly Latino Lower East Side, and that the LESGC was at the beginning of a major capital project to build a “Center for Community” in Alphabet City, right next to one of the biggest stretches of public housing in New York City.

We arranged for me to teach some slightly techie “Crafty Chicas” Saturday sessions with elementary school-aged girls and their mothers, and I’ve been involved with the LESGC off and on ever since. A lot has changed since 2010. Other resources I encountered at that first Maker Faire put me on a path that culminated in a couple of years at MIT Media Lab, where I got another master’s degree; the Maker Faire itself has expanded to dozens, if not hundreds, more cities and has spawned a well-known “Maker Movement,” and the LESGC completed their three-floor, state of the art community center, which includes a planetarium, maker space, computer lab, recording studio, microbiology lab, and many other kinds of facilities that make me wish I was a girl again.

Last year, in 2014, Jennifer Sugg helped me recruit and LESGC girl, Jenna Otero, for my cycling project MindRider. While I was waiting for Jenna to finish her bike ride, I was recruited myself, to teach physical computing to middle and early high school girls in a weekly basis. That was one year ago, and it’s been quite an eventful year. Not only have I met and worked with a number of remarkable girls, but I’ve also worked with some remarkable women, fellow teachers and staff at the LESGC. These include Sam Waite, Ade Tugbiyele, Meghan —-, and many more. I’ve also had the honor to work with Yapah Berry and Majestic Rivas, two City Tech students who have been incredible TAs. Yapah interned with me at DuKode, and she is now a City Tech alum, while Majestic, who was an LESGC student more than ten years ago, is now a City Tech junior.

A college of some of our “Maker Shop” projects are below. What might be the peak of these projects is the Coderpillar, a working, interactive architectural model of —- . Coderpillar won “Most Innovative” at this year’s Emoti-Con, a day long event that engages and celebrates youth working with technology as part of the Mozilla Hive, a citywide network of informal youth and technology programs, many of them held after school, on weekends, and during school vacations. Mozilla Hive, which has chapters throughout the world, may be one reason the girls, STEM, and the maker movement have reached a much higher profile recently. I was proud to be a part of emoti-con, not only as an instructor at LESGC, but also as a keynote speaker and as a judge. Many friends from New York and MIT were involved in emoti-con, and one of the event’s unsung heroines is Dixie Ching, a good friend of mine who is also an instrumental researcher and advocate at the Mozilla Hive.

It’s been an intense five (or so) years and I sense that I may be on the cusp of some major transitions in terms of my involvement in all of these amazing things. Whatever happens, now seems like a good time to summarize the LESGC Maker Shop projects from the last year!