Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Not All Arduino Uses are Created Equal: Context & Gender

The below article ran in the IEEE Spectrum Tech-Alert under the awful title, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.” The IEEE Spectrum editor immediately sent out an email retraction of the title as being offensive.
But even with the retraction, I don’t think that the piece adequately explores how different the populations are of Arduino users. The below picture is from Leah Buchele at this last May’s NCWIT Summit in NYC.

The graph on the left describes the gender makeup of the Arduino-using community. The graph on the right describes the gender makeup of the LilyPad-using community. The IEEE article simply describes the LilyPad as “waterproof.” Huh? Don’t they know about e-textiles? The red in the graphs are male, and the aqua are female. In statistics, this is called “inter-occular occlusion” — you don’t need a t-test, this just hits you between the eyes. Women like the LilyPad. The Arduino community has almost no women in it. The context matters.

If you’re going to make some crack about mothers programming, then you’d better speak to the significant gender issues. And if you’re going to write about Arduino, you should really know about the different communities. Arduino matters for women, because it led to LilyPad. Arduino itself plays no role in being a technology environment for mothers or just about any women at all. They’d better figure that out before they further explore “integrating it more deeply into the education system.”
To fuel greater adoption of Arduino, the team is exploring how to integrate it more deeply into the education system, from grade schools to colleges. Several universities, including Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, already use Arduino. Mellis has been studying how students and laypeople take to electronics in a series of workshops at the MIT Media Lab. Mellis invites 8 to 10 people to the lab, where they’re given a task to complete over the course of a day. The projects have included building iPod speakers, FM radios, and a computer mouse using some of the same components that Arduino uses.

But spreading the Arduino gospel is only part of the challenge. The team must also keep up with demand for the boards. In fact, the Arduino platform doesn’t consist of one type of board anymore—there’s now an entire family of boards. In addition to the original design, called the Arduino Uno, the new models include a more powerful board called the Arduino Mega, a compact board called the Arduino Nano, a waterproof board called the LilyPad Arduino, and a recently released, Net-enabled board called the Arduino Ethernet.


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