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Changing the Face of Computing—One Stitch at a Time

In honor of Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Yasmin Kafai and Jane Margolis reflect on the legacy of the British mathematician, who is famously regarded as the first female computer programmer.<--break->

As we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, we should be reminded that one of the first computers in the nineteenth century, the “Analytical Engine,” was based on the design of the Jacquard loom, for weaving fashionable complex textiles of the times. It was fashion that inspired British mathematician Ada Lovelace to write the code for the loom that wove the complex patterns that were in vogue. She also wrote a most beautiful sentence linking computing and fashion: “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.” And yet, the historical and intimate relationship between fashion and computer science has largely been forgotten and ignored, even as Lovelace’s pioneering spirit lives on today’s runways.

Today, runway models wearing high tech dresses with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) sewn into the fabric are making more than just a fashion statement. They are also drawing attention to a growing connection between high fashion and high tech. Technology is everywhere and has now made it possible for dresses to change colors, jackets to play music, necklaces to display twitter feeds, and even possibly clothes to detect dehydration. Can LED dresses and other techno-wearables become more than high-priced fashion statements for those who can afford them? Besides changing fashion, could the integration of technology into fashion help us broaden participation in computer science? Is it possible that fashion can indeed become one of the unexpected new runways for tying together the high tech fields of engineering and computing with the arts and humanities and challenging the deep and persistent underrepresentation in computer science?

Although women make up more than half of all AP test-takers, less than a quarter of those who took the AP CS exam in 2014 were female. Less than 18% of undergraduate degrees were awarded in the last year to women, and this is down from 37% in the 1980’s. The situation in Silicon Valley is not that much different. Few females and people of color occupy technical positions in Silicon Valley. Recent data show that men occupy 70% of positions in companies like Apple and Google, and only few minorities, Hispanics at 3% and African Americans even less at 1% of their workforce.

To change the face of computing computer science, classes in schools must exist and use curriculum and materials that invite new ways of thinking about and doing computing, connecting to issues that are important to young people’s lives. Environmental science, medicine, music—and, yes, even fashion—are some of the many rich crossover areas that can appeal to a broader segment of the student population challenging ideas about who can do computing and what computing is about. And while many may identify fashion with females, we think that the new generation of wearables has broadened their appeal and usability.

As digital technologies have changed every aspect of our world, from the sciences to the arts, we should not be surprised that fashion is included among the innovations. Rather than carrying computers in our pockets or on our glasses, electronic textiles (e-textiles) allow the computer to be part of the fabric of our t-shirts, jackets, and bags. These e-textiles include circuits stitched with conductive thread using small, sewable microcomputers capable of controlling LEDs and sensors. Students—both male and female of all races—who are passionate about the arts and fashion, but also math and science, should not have to choose between the two. Learning how to sew, design, and program electronic textiles can make transparent the workings of the technology that undergirds much of our daily lives, from the switches in our smart phones to the social networks we use to interact with others. For this reason we are designing an e-textiles curriculum for high schools that is an amalgam of the social sciences and arts, as well as math, science, and computer science. This curriculum will become part of the “Exploring Computer Science” program—one of the innovative courses being offered nationwide and committed to introducing and engaging all students in computer science—along with an accompanying teacher professional development program. Imagine a “turn signal” jacket that has blinking LEDs on the back that are programmed to signal a bicyclist’s right or left turn with the flick of a switch sewn into a sleeve. Imagine an electronic quilt that displays not only a school’s mission but also daily changing messages. Imagine girls and boys in computer science classes tapping into their love of fashion by modeling their artistic designs, their beautiful sense of color and fabric, and their growing knowledge of computer science. We look forward to the days when high schools students all over country are designing computer science projects that are both socially meaningful and creative.

We look forward to the days when students can pursue their interest in the arts and math and science as they walk down the runway in their school fashion shows or science fairs. We are hoping that integrating technology into fashion will be one of the creative new runways to help all traditionally underrepresented groups of students break into a mostly male clubhouse of computing, becoming producers and creators—not just consumers—of technological innovations, just like Ada Lovelace.


Yasmin Kafai is a professor at University of Pennsylvania, coauthor of Connected Code: Why Children Need to Learn Programming, and coeditor of Textile Messages: Dispatches from the World of E-Textiles and Education. Jane Margolis is a senior researcher at UCLA, author of Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing, and author of Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing.


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