Designing Edu-tech products encouraging Girls in STEAM.
No, I am not talking about coloring a legos robotics kit pink!!
To start of, it is very difficult to design toys. Specially educational tech toys that teaches a child science, math or coding. Traditionally, products are designed to make the user experience smooth to derive higher usability. On the other hand, ‘education’ inherently has a learning curve associated to it. Hence the product needs to create the necessary friction in experience for the child to fail and learn.
Creating this ‘friction’ in experience is what the designer needs to design, which is counter intuitive!
On top of these challenges, focus has shifted on designing products that attracts both the genders. Well we had a research based approach to this problem. We conducted some studies comparing some robotic kits and also made our own robotic kit, with certain hypothetical design assumptions. As it would turn out to be true, the biggest gender neutral aspect in any such robotic toy kit is the kind of activity it enables.
Some robotic kits have pieces that snaps while others screws. What if a plug-n-play robotic kit can enable activities that are liked by both male and female demographics? — Crafting! What if you can make robots using cardboard, acrylic, foam or any other household material and some duct tape or velcro or even glue sticks? We created such a robotic kit and did user studies to gain some insights. Our two biggest takeaways -
Gender Acceptance towards materials.
This may sound absurd, but it was evident that when girls saw lego pieces they immediately associated the activities to be more male derivative. Similarly when boys saw electronic textile, they associated the activity to being female centric. On the contrary we understand the that Lego pieces are used by a lot of girls to make structures and electronics textile is the new trend in DIY style flexible electronics which is again equally attractive to male. These material then in turn enables activities, which can be further recognized as male or female centric. On the other hand, the act of crafting is very free flowing. A boy and a girl can make their different creation using the same process — crafting. They may use the same material, but the outcome of their creative exploration may be different. So why not give life to your cardboard creations by attaching robotic modules? And we did that.
Learning by doing.
By enabling crafting to make robots, the child would tend to fail in their first design. But as they were invested in making their creations come to life, they would adopt an iterative design cycle of reinforcing their points of failure. One kid would make a crane and it falls off as the structure was too high, the child would then work on making the center of mass of the crane to come down. This child would revisit the design and test it! Similarly many kids would craft a puppet which would fall down. So for the same they would make the base stronger and wider. They were tacitly implementing engineering level skills to their toys. That was great, they were learning at the same time they were playing!!
Conclusion — We found out that, If a kit is designed to enable crafting while making robots, it would attract both the male and the female demographics equally. Once they get engaged in the kit, their activities would scaffold into learning science, engineering and maths. This is the beauty of tangible play! Getting out of the screens and becoming makers from an early age. We went a step ahead and enabled the robots to be controlled by hand gestures using a power glove thereby increasing the incentives at the end of the robot making process. Many children, irrespective of the gender, found the act of controlling the robots using hand gestures to be fun and inviting. Now we have that product out in the market as Ziro — World/s First Hand Controlled Modular Robotic Kit. (http://ziro.io/)
As a designer of the product, one could always argue to what level has the necessary friction need to be at. Should it be a simple plug and play system or a complete full blown DIY kit. We kept the our kit to plug and play as the child has already invested time in crafting. Making the robot come to life should be quick and fast.
Link to the Research Paper — https://engineering.purdue.edu/cdesign/wp/handimate-exploring-a-modular-robotics-kit-for-animating-crafted-toys/