Jennifer & Emily

Jennifer & Emily

Both girls joined their after school science club in autumn of 6th grade. Jennifer joined because she wanted to use the computers that she knew the club had. She thought that “science is boring,” and often complained that she was not allowed to “build” things or “use technology” in school science. She yet was quite proud of her abilities with technology, often bragging about the things she accomplished. As she states:

 I am good at jailbreaking stuff. I am actually good at jailbreaking. Like going on an iPad or iPod or whatever, it’s like an unlock. You can jailbreak it and get inside of it. I jail breaked My mom’s iPhone. I read her emails [laugh]. And then I got in trouble.

Emily, on the other hand, joined the club because Jennifer joined. Emily was neither interested in science nor technology but was best friends with Jennifer, from an early age.

6th grade: A light up Scooter! Coming soon!

7th grade: Heated Jacket

Over 8 months, from October to May, Jennifer and Emily designed a heated jacket. In the shoulders of the jacket they sewed in flexible solar panels. The panels were attached to rechargeable batteries, which would store the energy, and which would also power 3 small heating elements located within the layers of the jacket. A thin layer of mylar insulation was added to the jacket to allow the smaller heating elements to adequately heat the jacket, and not to let the heat escape.

jacket figure

The girls came up with this idea after spending 4 weeks surveying peers and community members about the safety issues they cared about. They collected 62 survey responses. From graphs made of the data, the girls noticed that “commuting” was a main safety concern, identified by 74% of the respondents. When they looked closely at the comments written by the respondents, they noted that youth respondents were more concerned with walking in the dark and with bullying more so than the adults respondents.

They opted to design a heated and lighted hooded sweatshirt. Emily described the shirt this way, “There are a lot of people who get frostbite in the winter when people are outside. Ours is way cheaper than a regular sweatshirt and way warmer. It will keep you warm and snug. It will have a heater in it and lights for glamour and fashion.”

The aesthetics of the shirt carry deeper meaning than just beauty, however. Both girls were concerned about inappropriate exposure and also being bullied for appearances. As someone who has been bullied herself for appearance, this was an important concern for Jennifer,

I was like I am going to give you something beautiful but with casual in it so that you don’t expose yourself. Like a jacket that goes all of the way down. My idea could help change things. People make fun of you. . . Why are you wearing that? You are ugly. There are stains on your clothes.

And so the jacket was meant to push back against these negative peer relations in addition to keeping people warm.

There are many aspects to this story that we could tell, but we focus on two for the sake of time.

Multiple inroads. The first is that the girls had multiple in-roads to their design work, which enabled them to develop reasonable constraints on how they defined their project problem. The girls were fixated on ensuring that the jacket was fashionable and affordable, but their ideas about what this meant from a technical standpoint were vague. Their initial design sketches included fashion ideas, but lacked any in-depth clarity on the technical aspects of the design. When they were pushed to add more technical dimensions to their initial sketches, they resisted, stating that their sketches had everything they needed.

Jennifer then spent countless hours on Pinterest looking at possible jacket designs, moving them over to Google Sketch up to try to figure out how to prototype her developing ideas. She wanted to have her ideas perfected before actually building her prototype. She used her experience and knowledge of computers to do this. This on-line exploration led to many different ideas for the jacket, including clearer ideas on what they did not want to do. “All of the heated jackets are for hunting and construction, not for casual.” “Look, they all have those big heating parts, and that would be heavy!


Emily interviewed her peers to see what they wanted out of hoodie fashion. Peers insisted that the heater have adjustable settings, and that the jacket not be bulky.

While one could argue that these moves further allowed the girls to put off engaging in the more technical or scientific aspects of their design work, I argue that these starting points provided in roads that allowed them to functionally break down their designs in order to define and then work on smaller, intersecting technical components of the project.

These efforts led the girls to begin investigating how to heat the jacket in a lightweight manner, which led them to experiment with different heating elements and their power requirements.

The technical aspects of this work was very challenging for the girls to stay engaged with.

On several occasions, the girls almost gave up. About 5 months into the project, Emily threw her arms up in despair after realizing the heating element they desired for their jacket demanded too much power. To make the frustration greater, she determined this after spending nearly two hours working out the calculation with Jennifer one particular afternoon.

She stated, “I like this heating source but we can’t use 110 batteries! We don’t even have that many batteries. And the sweatshirt would just be too heavy. I don’t know what to do!

These types of critical junctures – these moments of almost dis-engagement — became generative.

And this brings me to the second aspect of the girls’ story that I want to tell. The girls expanding social network played important roles in helping them trouble shoot and move forward in their design decisions.

When the girls were stuck on this power issue and were visibly beginning to disengage from their work, one of the mentors reminded the girls of a silly video short they made 2 months prior, where Jennifer told a funny story of insulation at home. Jennifer had been especially proud of this idea as she had gotten it from a fireplace her father had re-built in their home.

[Heat is very expensive. . . In my design, the thing is going to be far away from the silver lining so it wont get too hot and burn you. I thought of this myself because just thinking about it. You don’t get everything from teachers. The silver lining, as a kid I seen a lot of it because we had to put it, we had something in our fire place. We had to put silver lining around it so the heat would stay in it, but it wouldn’t burn anything outside of it.]

The moment became pivotal as the two girls used this earlier blog to begin to investigate how insulation might allow them to use smaller heating elements – with lower power demands – to work more efficiently in their design.

At another critical moment, Jennifer accidently “cut too deep” into the prototype. She left the makerspace crying as they did not have another jacket, and neither she nor Emily knew how to sew. However, one of club teachers recruited a mom to come in and Jennifer and Emily learn how to use a sewing machine. As Jennifer stated in reference to a picture of her cutting the shirt,

This is me making a horrible mistake by cutting it, and so I had to learn how to sew. Next time, if something breaks, I know how to sew it back together.

sewing machine

A third critical moment was when the girls sought ways to recharge the batteries they had planned to use in “green ways.” They did not want to use regular batteries as they considered them a waste of money, and wanted to avoid the trouble of replacing batteries as they run out. They didn’t want to recharge the batteries with standard electricity because it “just creates an environment problem”.

Emily suggested using solar energy, and she thought they could put small solar panels on the jacket. However, Jennifer did not like the idea because she was afraid jacket would work during cloudy days or at night if it was powered by solar panels. She also thought that putting solar panels on their jacket would look “ugly.”

Emily and Jennifer fought about what to do next, and Emily walked away from her project, over to other groups. She noticed a group working with a flexible solar panel. She pulled Jennifer over to the group and ask, “What about this? It looks fancy! It’s not ugly!” This did not solve the problem immediately. While Jennifer agreed that the flexible solar panel could look fashionable, she doubted it would work on dark or cloudy days – the days the jacket was most needed.

Emily grabbed hold of a engineering mentor who was working with the other group, and asked if the flexible solar panel could be attached to batteries to store the energy. She became quite animated in her questions, recalling an earlier experiment she had done on solar energy, even though she could not quite get out the technical language in specific ways. The engineer, however, followed her thinking and said he would show the girls how to connect the solar panel to batteries, and offered to explain how the energy transformations worked.

This interaction provided the needed push to help them with this particular aspect of their design challenge.