The idea of stitching circuitry into clothing may seem like a concept gleaned from the pages of a science-fiction novel set centuries into the future.
However, Yasmin Kafai of the Graduate School of Education — along with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Indiana University — intends to do just that in an effort to cultivate interest in programming among youth.
The team received an $800,000 grant, titled “Computational Textiles as Materials for Creativity,” from the National Science Foundation in August to help its members realize this objective.
Kafai, the lead project investigator, explained that computational textiles, also known as “electronic” textiles, are soft materials with electronics — like sensors and light dials — and computer programs embedded in them.
“Nowadays, you have conductive thread that looks exactly like regular thread. You can actually stitch your circuits and combine the sensors with the light as embroidery,” she elaborated, adding that the process of fitting textiles with circuitry comprised the “engineering” element of the project.
The “computation” element lies in utilizing the LilyPad Arduino, an electronic textile construction kit, to hook the sensors and lights in the textiles up to a computer program with a USB cable. Once the programming is complete, it can then be determined how these textile components will interact with the environment.
“You can essentially illuminate the display on your clothes or on your bags, wherever you have it,” Kafai said. “You can put the electronics anywhere and use the conductive thread to create circuits and decorations — that’s the ‘creative’ part.”
Once the team receives clearance from the City of Philadelphia to work with students, it will hold after-school workshops at William H. Hunter Elementary School, the Penn Alexander School and the Science Leadership Academy.
During workshop sessions, students will design computational textile creations to share and discuss through Scratch, a web site Kafai designed while working at MIT. The site enables users to design programs and upload them to share with others, who will then provide feedback.
Kafai added that, as the project progresses, she hopes to work with teachers on integrating programming activities into their regular daytime curriculum as well.
The project coincides with Congress’s recent passage of resolution H. RES. 558, which urged “educators and policymakers to improve computer science learning at all educational levels, and to motivate increased participation in computer science,” according to a statement issued by the Association for Computing Machinery.
This national focus on expanding computer science education is likewise reflected in the NSF’s “Broadening Participation in Computing” initiative.
According to Kafai, the number of women and minorities interested in pursuing computer science degrees and careers has been consistently low over the last 10 years.
“That’s why there's a need to come up with innovative ways, particularly for youth, to demonstrate that programming isn’t just sitting in front of a computer screen in your room,” she said, “but has applications that connect you with the real world and your particular interests.”