Thursday, January 4, 2018

Gold Award Girl Scout Brings STEM to the Catwalk

Maureen “Reeny” B. is a 2017 National Young Woman of Distinction from Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland. As part of her Gold Award project, she designed and created fashion accessories she dubbed “Illumicize” that progressively light up in response to increases in heart rate. But that was just the beginning. Maureen went on to host a series of Catwalk Coding camps—instructional courses designed to attract girls in low-income communities to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Today she updates us on her camps and how they’re affecting girls around the world.

I began my free Catwalk Coding educational camps in order to show young women trying out STEM fields that traditionally “feminine” interests are not, as societal pressures would have us believe, at odds with capability and success in male-dominated STEM fields. During camp, 25 girls from in and around Wichita, Kansas, learn how to design and manufacture their own light-up outfits and accessories. I teach them to code, wire, and solder their accessories, which they show off in a runway show extravaganza for friends, family, and local women who work in STEM.

Every time I run the camp, I find that young women appreciate being shown that their interests aren’t frivolous because they’re “girly.” I hope to see young girls no longer taught that they need to adapt to fit into patriarchal STEM cultures but rather introduced to STEM fields in a way that meets their needs as women.

Last November, I conducted my first international iteration of Catwalk Coding in the Santa Fe district of Mexico City, Mexico! The interest the program amassed was immense—nearly 100 girls attended! Despite some language barrier struggles on my end, I taught the girls electronic circuitry and coding while they practiced skills in soldering and sewing with conductive thread to construct their personalized T-shirts. The final runway show, although very simply staged within the small community center in a particularly low-income part of the district, was so remarkable for the confidence these young women displayed, which was exactly what I’d hoped to see in a Catwalk Coding experience. These girls (as young as six!) approached the project with an unwavering determination that propelled them toward innovative solutions and wonderfully creative products.

This iteration of my camp, maybe moreso than any other, has reinstilled me with confidence in my message and the way I’ve chosen to communicate my interpretation of feminism to young women. As I approach college, I have begun to wrestle with the question of how to continue to extend Catwalk Coding’s reach. I recently partnered with the National Center for Women and Information Technology to engineer a miniature version of Catwalk Coding through which the accessories are worn by educational dolls whose clothes may be programmed to illuminate in different colors and patterns through four different types of e-textiles sewn into the dolls’ headbands, necklines, waistlines, and skirts. These elaborate dresses are constructed so the fabric can be lifted to view and girls can easily learn from the simple circuitry.

The two intensely stylish doll prototypes I’ve completed so far, “Paris” and “Hollywood,” will be exhibited at various conferences and outreach programs throughout the United States. These dolls will hopefully act as an accessible gateway tool for young girls to have their first coding experiences and will promote the philosophy of my Catwalk Coding program to integrate traditionally “feminine” interests and experiences into teaching valuable STEM skills. Additionally, I am currently perfecting the code on an adult-size dress, which I wear at my events to affirm that I shouldn’t have to downplay my fabulousness in order to be taken seriously as a programmer and innovator.

I would just like to stress how incredibly thankful I am to have had the support of my Girl Scout community throughout this process. These girls and women initially encouraged me in my vision of passing on the support I’ve experienced to other young women. Becoming one of Girl Scouts’ National Young Women of Distinction has inspired and connected me with female innovators and activists across the country. Such incredible women have served as my role models, showing me what it is to be a strong woman and helping me define my place among a vast network of powerful girls.