Creating Craftier Engineers

Why students should learn to sew in STEM classes.



Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

On Wednesday, June 17, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will host an evening event in Washington, D.C., on designing the 21st century. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

When I moved to a new town after graduate school, one of the first things I did was head to the local makerspace—a place where people get together to work on all kinds of DIY projects, from the high-tech to the low-. I soon noticed two things: I was often the only woman in the room and usually the only person who expressed an interest in crafting over coding or 3-D printing. While my scientific street cred (Ph.D. in chemistry and nanotechnology) gained me acceptance, both my gender and my interests made me feel like an outsider in this group, especially when, inevitably, someone asked how much “technology” was going to be present in my projects or whether I was interested in a fashion show because I modeled. While my interest in that show was due to garment construction, perhaps it was my past life as the alternate Warren County Farmers’ Fair Queen that had confounded this individual.

But when I attend embroidery meetups, knitting circles, or other crafting groups in the same town, the participants tend to all be women, and in these groups, my STEM background or use of technology can “other” me. The separation between these two groups is indicative of a wider problem: Craft and maker activities are not separate practices, they exist on a continuum, and they should not be inherently limited to certain groups of practitioners.

My blended identity has greatly influenced my own research, which focuses on, among other things, how STEM, art, and craft can come together in education to benefit students. I am excited to see that the maker and STEAM (that’s STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—plus arts) movements are increasingly integrated into K–12 education and beyond. However, many of these programs can prioritize technology over crafting or use crafting as a gateway to technology. While it’s noble to build STEM interest, downplaying crafting and the arts is not.

For example, an article on the education technology site Digital Shift describes low-tech activities as “LEGOs, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, astronomy, knitting, weaving, crochet, jewelry-making, sewing, wood working, metal working, bike repair, button making, and even paper airplane construction,” and high-tech activities as “robotics, digital video production, computer coding, and 3-D printing.” While these appear to be divided along lines of added technology, these activities could be seen as being divided along traditional gender lines as well, with handicrafts places squarely in the low-tech category. This idea that low tech and high tech are entirely separate is misleading: Traditionally low-tech activities can be incredibly important for enhancing STEM education, and there is much more interplay between advances in technology and in crafting than you might think.

Increasingly, sewers can integrate high-tech materials and components into garments, regardless of location and education level. I’m not just talking about sewing machines; new supplies like conductive thread, sewable circuits, and programmable LEDs have become easily accessible through websites like Adafruit and Sparkfun. Kate Mulcahy, a self-identified scientist and maker, told the Telegraph, “Craft and science are now crashing together—wearable tech has helped a lot. You can go from coding to sewing and rewiring in a single project.” In the classroom, instructors can point out the “hidden” high-tech aspects of sewing, including the innovations in chemistry and materials science that have led to the fabrics and yarns that we currently use.

Much of the artificial separation between crafts like sewing and the maker movement comes down to two things. First, the kind of people who tend to populate makerspaces or making activities: white, privileged, and male. In the Atlantic piece “Why I Am Not a Maker,” Debbie Chachra, an associate professor of materials science at Olin College, writes, “The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.” Leah Buechley, inventor of the LilyPad Arduino, has said of makerspaces, “I’m tired of organizations being set up to tell young women and young brown and black men that they should aspire to be young white men.”

In moving crafting and making into the STEM classroom, educators must be conscious of these identity associations so students feel included in classroom. Members of the maker community are increasingly supporting building diverse communities, with articles like “Why It’s Good for Everyone When Your Makerspace Is More Inclusive” and blog posts stressing aligning values and focusing on social justice. Some makerspaces are dedicated to a different focus; Double Union in San Francisco states that its members are “intersectional feminists, women-centered, and queer and trans-inclusive,” while the Seattle Attic describes itself as “a feminist, woman-centered, trans- and queer- inclusive space for tinkerers, makers, crafters and hackers of all genders.”

Second is the gendering of the making/crafting activity. Researchers from academia to industry have found that e-textiles and sewing with circuits can help introduce young women to STEM, specifically computer science. Several prominent researchers have explored or are exploring the use of e-textiles and sewable circuits in the classroom to understand gendering of components and gendered access in crafting and electronics practices, among other issues. E-textiles and sewing circuits can also be used to show women in nontraditional gender roles, such as business owner and inventor. From the Adafruit website to LilyPad Arduino, women involved with or associated with crafting are visible and integral contributors to the infrastructure of the maker and STEAM movements. Additionally, addressing issues of diversity in crafting and STEM can be accomplished by pre-class work—like having students read articles about maker stereotypes or about sewers who see sewing as engineering before they roll up their sleeves and start working on STEAM/maker activities that involve sewing circuits/e-textiles.

Some traditionalists may roll their eyes. But the combination of sewing, crafting, making, and STEM offers educators a critical opportunity to explore ethics and social justice with students. From discussions around the ethics of copying patterns to the sourcing of fabrics to conditions for garment workers to the use of craft as a form of activism, there is no shortage of topics for discussion to help students gain a broader conceptualization of ethics in crafting, making, and STEM.

Pursuing this kind of work makes it necessary to leave the ivory tower and engage with different communities. For my own part, I will be holding an all-ages e-textile workshop and hangout on June 18 at the local makerspace. I will be highlighting both the artistic and scientific sides of projects; participants are to bring their own supplies and come with an idea for a project. If those of us who pursue activities across the spectrum of crafting, making, and STEM acknowledge our identities publicly and host events and/or engage with different communities, we can create opportunities to educate and inform.

Work was made possible in part through funding from the Penn State Rock Ethics Institute. The opinions and views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the opinion, views, or policy of the Pennsylvania State University, the Rock Ethics Institute, or the National Science Foundation.