Education Development Center, Inc.
Center for Children and Technology
The research presented here began several
years ago when a group of us at Bank Street's Center for Children
and Technology set out to investigate a range of issues around
gender and technology. As part of that research we speculated
that the activity of design was a promising way to support
alternative pathways for girls into the world of technology (Brunner,
Hawkins, and Honey, 1988). The developmental and educational psychology
literatures offer robust evidence that a richer understanding
of a task is developed when children actively construct their
own knowledge (Dewey, 1933; Piaget, 1972). In his book, Knowledge
as Design, David Perkins (1986) suggests that the act of designing
facilitates the constructive and creative use of knowledge by
the designer. The work that Seymour Papert and his colleagues
at M.I.T. have undertaken on LEGO/Logo indicates that design is
a powerful way to engage learners in making deep "cognitive
connections with the mathematical and scientific concepts that
underlie the domain in which they are designing" (Resnick
and Ocko, 1990, p. 122). The LEGO/Logo researchers also found
that as an activity, design has the added benefit of helping students
acquire a rich sense of achievement and purpose. At the start
of our research, we hypothesized that through the activity of
design, "it may be possible to develop situations in which
technology comes alive for girls, where they are invited to engage
in a new kind of conversation with materials and ideas in constructing
artifacts" (Brunner, Hawkins, and Honey, 1988, p. 11).
Our gender research also began with certain
suppositions about the nature of technology. In our view there
are specific discursive practices that have grown up around technology
that need to be unpacked if we are to understand the social and
psychological dimensions of engaging with technological objects.
For example, there is a world of culturally produced meaning associated
with technology. A recent article by Paul Edwards (1990) makes
the point that "computer work is more than just a job. It
is a major cultural practice, a large scale social form that has
created and reinforced modes of thinking, systems of interaction,
and ideologies of social control" (p. 102). There are also
psychological meanings that we, as users, bring to the technology.
For example, a common fantasy shared by women is that when something
goes wrong with a technological device it will blow up. These
two meaning domains do not, however, exist independently of each
other, and there are numerous ways in which personal fantasies
or desires mesh with culturally-produced meanings. Sherry Turkle's
(1984, 1988, 1990) work has shown us that in many respects the
cultural apparatus that surrounds technology is sustained by the
ways in which gender operates as a social and psychological phenomenon.
Her notion of "computational reticence" documents exactly
this phenomenon -- women are reluctant to engage with computers
because, for a variety of complex social and psychological reasons,
they experience this technology as threatening (1988, p. 42).
With this perspective in mind we collected
baseline information that would help us to elaborate our hypothesis
about design (Hawkins, et al., 1990). We devised a paper and pencil
projective task in which men and women and boys and girls were
asked to imagine futuristic technological devices. Our purpose
was to explore the symbolic aspects of technology by asking individuals
to elaborate on their less-than-conscious associations to technology.
Specifically, the adults were asked to write a reply to the following
scenario: If you were writing a science fiction story in which
the perfect instrument (a future version of your own) is
described, what would it be like? The task was modified slightly
for the adolescents and read as follows: If you were writing
a science fiction story about the perfect school computer (a fabulous
machine), what would it be like?
The sample for these studies consisted of
twenty-four adult technology experts (13 women and 11 men) and
80 early adolescents (41 girls and 39 boys) who were not particularly
sophisticated about technology. While we found evidence suggesting
an overlap between the genders, there was a definite and characteristic
difference in the way adult men and women in our sample fantasized
about the relationship between humans and machines (Brunner, et
al., 1990). Women commonly saw technological instruments as people
connectors, communication, and collaboration devices. Their technological
fantasies were often embedded in human relationships and they
served to integrate their public and private lives. For example,
one woman, an industrial engineer, described a futuristic instrument
in the following terms:
The 'keyboard' would be the size of a medallion,
formed into a beautiful piece of platinum sculptured jewelry,
worn around one's neck. The medallion could be purchased in many
shapes and sizes. The keyed input would operate all day-to-day
necessities to communicate and transport people (including replacements
to todays automobile). The fiber optic network that linked operations
would have no dangerous side effect or by product that harmed
people or the environment.
The men, in contrast, tended to envision
technology as extensions of their power over the physical universe.
Their fantasies were often about absolute control, tremendous
speed and unlimited knowledge. Consider this fantasy, written
by a male computer scientist:
A direct brain-to-machine link. Plug it
into the socket in the back of your head and you can begin communications
with it. All information from other users is available and all
of the history of mankind is also available. By selecting any
time period the computer can impress directly on the user's brain
images and background information for that time. In essence a
time-machine. The user would not be able to discern the difference
between dreams and reality and information placed there by the
machine. (Perhaps this is all a nightmare.)
The results of our studies with adolescents
were congruent with the results of the adult subjects (Brunner,
et al., 1990). The difference in technological imagination points
in the same direction as the adult fantasy material. Girls' technological
fantasies tended to be more about household helpers, contact bringers,
machines that offer companionship, or devices with which they
could broaden their social and personal networks. On the other
hand, boys fantasized about extensions of instrumental power,
often thinking up tools that could make other technological objects
overpower natural constraints.
These differences between boys and girls
were more concretely evident in another task in which we had another
group of early adolescents blueprint designs of fantasy machines
(Brunner, et al., 1990). The boys often illustrated fantastic
cars or vehicles for flight that ventured through rocky terrain
or adventuresome landscapes propelled by powerful devices such
as rocket boosters and turbo jets. Some went as far as describing
the voltage of the batteries or motors that their inventions included.
The girls generally illustrated robots and devices with human-like
qualities (e.g., smiles, eyes, etc.) that could help with everyday
chores, and they tended to embed their inventions in social or
real-life contexts such as hospitals, bedrooms, or shopping malls.
They were less concerned with describing the internal mechanical
parts of their machines. Instead they often chose to include luxury
features such as sensory devices (which one girl named "synergistic
relaxation") or external buttons and switches that would
magically operate their inventions.
We gather from this that girls think about
technology, when invited to do so, as embedded in and facilitating
human interaction. Clearly such an attitude toward technology
should be encouraged and valued. However, if we consider the cultural
and social discourse in which technology is embedded, the obstacles
girls may face in having their fantasies realized become apparent.
Margaret Lowe Benston (1988) suggests that, "part of the
technical world view is the belief in one's right to control
the material world. Part of successful socialization as a man
in our society involves gathering confidence in one's actual ability
to exercise that control" (p. 20). The male fantasy material
in our studies reflects exactly this phenomenon. In addition,
the kind of design features that girls want to build into their
machines are not necessarily accorded the same privileged status
as the features of power, speed and efficiency that boys emphasize.
As the writings of Cheris Kramarae (1988) and Cynthia Cockburn
(1988) suggest, women's desire for communication, collaboration
and integration are not central to the masculine technological
world view which is increasingly accepted as the only legitimate
model for discussing, developing, and evaluating technology.
Finally, there is a great deal of evidence
that confirms the fact that gender-specific social expectations
play a role in limiting girls' capacity to be creators, shapers,
and producers of technology (Berner, 1984; Carter & Kirkup,
1990; Cockburn, 1988; Kramarae, 1988; Kramer & Lehman, 1990;
Lewis, 1987; Weinberg, 1987). From a very early age, boys are
expected and encouraged to learn about machines, tools, and how
things work and are given many opportunities to dismantle technological
objects and toys. Girls, in contrast, are not expected to know
about technical matters and are often encouraged to be merely
consumers and users of the technology.
The Design Tool
Our preliminary investigation into the question
of girls and design led us to develop a computer-based design
tool that enables girls to create machines by starting from their
own imaginative vantage points. Imagine is intended to
function as a legitimating environment in which girls are encouraged
to think of themselves as designers and inventors of machines
without the traditional bottleneck imposed by math and science.
Imagine is a graphics program that contains basic draw
and paint tools as well as animation capabilities. After designing
and drawing an object of their own, students can animate it by
using a series of link procedures that are analogous to flip animation
or the kind used in animated films. Sound and visual effects,
such as a fade or black swipe across the screen, can be added
to this type of animation. In addition, students can label the
individual components of their machines and describe in as much
detail as they wish what each component does and how it works.
The Research Context
To test the use and effectiveness of this
program for encouraging girls' technological imaginations, an
elective course in design based on Imagine was offered
in an alternative junior high school in New York City. The goal
of the pilot research was to conduct a small-scale, qualitative
investigation into the ways in which girls used Imagine
in the context of a supportive but relatively unstructured classroom
environment. In other words, we wanted to gather baseline information
on how girls would make use of Imagine without the aid
of a directive curriculum.
Six girls (five seventh graders and one
eighth grader) met with the instructor once a week for an hour
and twenty minutes. Because all of the girls were novice Macintosh
users, the first two classes were devoted to an introduction to
the computer. The girls learned such basics as using a mouse,
the difference between the hard disk and a floppy disk, and file
management. The skills needed to design and animate an object
using Imagine were taught in the following order: draw
tools, paint tools, animation, and labeling. Each session was
organized so that the first 20-30 minutes were spent learning
a new feature of the program, and the remaining time was spent
working on projects. Once all of the important features of Imagine
were introduced, students spent the entire period working on their
projects while the instructor traveled from student to student
offering assistance where it was needed. The instructor spoke
regularly with each student and encouraged her to articulate what
she was working on and what she wanted to accomplish during the
Because we are ultimately interested in
developing a more directive curriculum that will encourage girls
to proceed from their own interpretive vantage points and
think systematically about the mechanisms that make machines work,
we analyzed students' inventions for the following information:
(1) the kinds of machines they designed; (2) the range of functions
they had their machines perform; (3) the extent to which they
posited a universal operating mechanism, and the extent to which
they posited individual operating mechanisms for each discrete
function through the use of Imagine's labeling capabilities.
Of the six girls who took the elective,
four became deeply involved in designing highly imaginative devices.
The remaining two girls had less success using this environment
for reasons that we will speculate about below. The nature of
the imagining that girls did in this context was similar in many
ways to the kind of imagining we found in our background research.
The machines they designed often featured human-like qualities
or emphasized solutions to real-life dilemmas. Three of the girls
made extensive use of Imagine's labeling capabilities.
However, they tended to vary in terms of whether they specified
a mechanism or set of mechanisms that made their devices work.
The projects are briefly described below.
Beth, a seventh grader, designed a robot
that was able to anticipate as well as fulfill a variety of human
needs including waking you up, serving breakfast in bed, and telling
you the answers to homework problems. Beth's robot consisted of
a drawing of a "creature who came from another planet."
Figure 1 shows Beth's drawing and label descriptions for her robot.
Although she had a well-developed sense
of the overall capabilities of her invention and had her robot
performing a wide range of discrete tasks (she used a total of
thirteen labels to describe how the different parts of the robot
function), she did not develop an explanation for an integrated
mechanism that would enable the tasks to be carried out. For three
of the robot's discrete functions she alluded to biological mechanisms
(e.g., brain, legs) and for another function she made reference
to a quasi-mechanical clip. Even though Beth had her robot performing
complex tasks, there was no integrated mechanism that made the
robot as a whole able to function. This device appeared to work
magically -- something like a fantasy caretaker who knows what
you want even before the need has arisen.
Another student, Jessy, designed an improved
subway car that made less noise, was more beautiful, had larger
windows and a sunroof, more room to sit, and contained sensors
for anything that could harm the subway or anybody in it. The
project consisted of a relatively elaborate drawing and seven
labels describing the improvements she envisioned. Figure 2 shows
Jessy's drawing and label descriptions for her subway car.
Jessy differed from Beth in so far as she
began to speculate about the mechanisms that allow for certain
improvements to be realized. She borrowed from the world of computer
technology and defined information-based mechanisms that made
these parts work. For example, she described a window-washer that
performed its function at midnight because it had been programmed
to do so, and she described the door of the train as having extra
sensitive microchips that could detect graffiti, guns, knives
and other harmful weapons. Jessy, thus, appeared to be leaning
in the direction of thinking about the mechanism that allows a
device to carry out its task.
A third student, Pauline, designed an intelligent
television that performs such tasks as serving food and answering
mother when you really want to avoid her. Like the others she
imagined a wide range of different functions (eight altogether)
that her machine performed. Figure 3 shows Pauline's drawing and
label descriptions for her intelligent television.
Unlike Beth and Jessy, Pauline integrated
the different components of her machine by making them responsive
to a central processing unit known as the "central intelligence
service." In her design, the C.I.S. received and interpreted
messages and provided feedback to the user and was responsive
to the different components of the machine. Of the three girls
who concentrated on labeling, defining, and describing the functions
of their devices, Pauline was the only student to conceptualize
an operating mechanism.
Kathy, an eighth grader, was unique in that
she was the only student to concentrate exclusively on using the
animation component of the program to illustrate her design. She
created a self-cleaning bathtub, that featured a rotating brush
and a button that released soapy water. Kathy's animation was
composed of a series of twelve screens that illustrated the cleaning
motion of the brush in the bathtub. Although she successfully
showed how her machine functioned, she did not make reference
to a mechanism that would underlie the operation of the brush.
Figure 4 shows the drawings that Kathy used in her animation sequence.
The two girls who had difficulty using the
program spent the majority of the course working together as partners.
Although they came up with ideas for devices (e.g., a wrist watch
that was also a VCR and Nintendo machine, a flying skateboard)
they were never satisfied with the drawings they made. They spent
class after class, drawing and re-drawing the object they wanted
to design. Undoubtedly, both girls would have benefited from a
version of Imagine that provided canned shapes and objects.
It was only toward the end of the course,
when they began working independently of each other, that they
started to make some progress. Hilda designed a flying bed. Her
project consisted of a schematic drawing of a bed with pillows,
a headboard and controllers. However, the quality of Hilda's drawing
suggested that she was struggling with the use of the tools. She
identified five functions that the bed performed, but did not
describe any mechanisms that made it work. Figure 5 shows Hilda's
drawing and label descriptions for her flying bed.
The other student, Iris, with a great deal
of support and guidance from the instructor, began to think through
an animation sequence for a pinball machine. However, she was
unable to put her plan into operation. Despite her difficulties
in using the software, Iris was not discouraged and she asked
the instructor if she could take the class again the following
There is a growing body of psychological
and sociological research which suggests that women and girls
do indeed approach, interpret, and understand various facets of
life differently than men. For example, Carol Gilligan's (1982)
work on women's reasoning suggests that women tend to view the
world in terms of interpresonal dynamics, and base their decisions,
particularly in the moral realm, on an ethics of care and responsibility
toward others. The work of Evelyn Keller (1985) suggests that
the ways in which the mainstream scientific community represents
its enterprise as an attempt to dominate nature, penetrate its
secrets and wrest knowledge from it, runs counter to the ways
in which women think about the scientific enterprise. In her work
on the life of the molecular biologist Barbara McClintock, Keller
found that the vocabulary McClintock used to describe her work
was "consistently a vocabulary of affection, of kinship,
of empathy" (p. 164). In the technological domain, sociologist
Sherry Turkle (1988) has identified two different styles of computing:
the risk taking style (mostly male) which is preoccupied
with testing the limits of both machine and self through mastery
and manipulation of the computer environment, and the relational
style (mostly female), which is "marked by an artistic,
almost tactile style of identification with computational objects,
a desire to 'play with them' as though they were physical objects
in a collage" (p. 50). Our own research (Hawkins, et al.,
1990) suggests that gender is an important factor in the interpretation
of engineered objects, understanding their symbolic significance,
and exercising technological imagination. All of these findings
have tremendous implications for creating alternative teaching
and learning strategies, that make room for differential patterns
of understanding and interpretation employed by women and girls.
Based on the work that the girls in this
study did during the course of a semester, it is clear that Imagine
is effective in serving as a conceptual space where girls are
encouraged to create and elaborate design ideas for technological
devices. With minimal encouragement the majority of these girls
were able to develop imaginative devices that performed a range
of creative functions. Imagine appeared to facilitate a
process of mental and graphic tinkering. In the absence of a well-defined
and rigorous design curriculum, what Imagine appears capable
of doing is legitimating the psychological experience of
thinking of oneself as an inventor. This, in and of itself, is
an important first step in legitimating and affirming girls' technological
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