If you could design a fantasy machine, what would it look like? What might it do? For years, researchers at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT) have been asking that question and others like it to groups of children and adults. In the process of analyzing the responses, the researchers have discovered some distinct gender differences in the ways we think about technology.
“Our gender research shows that girls and women are most interested in what technology can do for people, how it will affect their lives,” explains CCT’s Dorothy Bennett. “Girls tend to think about technology within a social context—about how it can facilitate communication and connection. But they are less interested in taking a look inside machines to see how they actually work.” Boys, on the other hand, tend to be excited by the workings of the machines themselves. And rather than imagine technology within a social context, “boys are drawn to technology that allows them to transcend physical and social boundaries—like machines that speed into outer space.”
In an effort to offer girls the opportunity to develop and share their visions of technology, educators at CCT have developed Imagination Place!, an interactive online design club for girls ages eight to twelve. In collaboration with Libraries for the Future and the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, Imagination Place! offers young people access to a shared online design space complete with text, graphic, animation, and sound tools.
Working in groups with informal educators at inner city libraries, computer centers, and after school programs, club members participate in a series of off- and online activities that guide them through the process of conceptualizing, designing, and sharing new technologies. “Most design programs for young people begin by asking participants to look at the inside of technology and at how to make things work,” says Bennett, “but often that isn’t the best way in for girls.” Instead, Imagination Place! begins with activities that invite discussion about the big ideas behind technology and design—discussions about what technology is, the role it plays in our lives, and the tradeoffs involved in design decisions.
For instance, the program begins with a hands-on introduction to the relationship between form and function. In an activity called Behind Every Good Shoe., club facilitators initiate a discussion about the familiar term “designer clothes” in order to introduce the idea that all clothing is designed by someone, and that designers make decisions about how clothing looks.
Then participants examine a varied assortment of shoes—everything from sneakers to work boots to dress shoes and sandals. As the girls look at the shoes, take them apart, and make sketches of them, they consider differences in materials; clasps and closures like laces, buckles, Velcro and slip-ons; kinds of heels; colors; and styles. They discuss how different kinds of shoes serve different purposes, and how designers are always guided by purpose as well as style. In a final activity, participants sketch two shoes of their own design: one that is intended for a specific purpose like fashion or walking in snow, and one in which there is a conflict between fashion and function—a shoe made of glass for example, or patent leather work boots.
With its emphasis on observation, discussion, and sketching, the initial activity on shoes sets the tone for the project as a whole. “Because some of the computer tools available these days are so sexy, kids get drawn to them immediately,” Bennett explains. “But we want to foster the kind of thinking and reflection that happens when you write and draw. So we have the kids keep design notebooks where they use paper and pen to work out their ideas.” In the low-income communities where the clubs reside, the offline activities also serve a practical function: Often there are not enough computers to go around at one time.
When they do work online, the girls express their design ideas using powerful software tools in an innovative environment called KAHooTZ. For instance, in The Wacky World of Whatchamacallits, participants use puzzles and games to investigate the design of both familiar objects and futuristic technology. In a chat environment called Word Wave, they discuss their ideas with peers and adults. And in Design Exchange, they flesh out their ideas using animation, sound, and graphic tools.
Some of the inventions the girls have created in the first year have been fanciful, like a heritage machine which transports people back to a particular place and time in order to converse with ancestors. Or a sleep machine that carries insomniacs through a series of automated lulling motions—from counting sheep to gentle rocking. Others are more practical, like a machine for recycling old sunglasses, and one that converts dirt into food.
By the end of the process, the young designers bring their inventions to an online patent office where they meet design specifications and provide front, side, and x-ray view drawings. They also name their inventions, answer questions about who and what they are designed for, and develop marketing plans to promote them.
Finally, they publish their inventions to an online community of young designers at the other Imagination Place! clubs. Their fellow designers review and discusses the inventions in a moderated series of online chats. “We discovered that it is important for kids to have an audience for their work,” says Bennett. “The chats really motivate the kids. They take each other’s work very seriously.” The designers use the input from their peers as they take their inventions through a revision process.
So far, response from participants has been enthusiastic, and project staff are preparing to bring the clubs to a wider audience of young people. Bennett attributes the interest to the fact that Imagination Place! is filling a void in online design opportunities. “We’ve seen some interesting tools for kids on the Internet, but not with the kind of scaffolding and instruction we’re providing. That support is important because in our technology-based society, kids need to learn to think critically about the place of technology in their lives. We want them to understand that the built environment isn’t static—they can change it. We hope they’ll develop a sense of themselves as designers and shapers of technology, not just consumers. “
Currently there are Imagination Place! clubs in 4 sites in the United States and several middle schools in Australia. The U.S. sites include the Minisink Center in Harlem and public libraries in Newark, Detroit, and Phoenix.
Originally published on September 1, 2000