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kids, gender, and soldering irons

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Mar. 6th, 2010 | 06:06 pm

Last night I helped a friend teach 9-14 year olds how to make very simple devices that light up an LED when you hit the thing or something that the thing is taped to. The gadget is really clever, which is not surprising because my friend, who designed it, is very clever. There's a little Piezo speaker soldered to a MOSFET transistor, a couple resistors, a battery and an LED such that the tiny electrical impulse created when the Piezo is hit, gets amplified and results in the LED lighting up. When you attach the speaker to a drum with some masking tape, you get an instrument that blinks when you hit it. The kids will use them in a parade during a festival of lights in a couple of weeks. Pretty freakin' cool, especially if you are 10.

Because of some scheduling mixups, the only people available to make these devices with the kids were myself, a white-for-most-purposes woman, and the designer, a white male. I walked in and got up to speed as quickly as I could because he was swamped with kids. By about the 2nd build I pretty much knew what I was doing, and was taking on a 2nd line of children to do one-on-one tutorials.

Something odd happened. After the first couple of kids, my constituency became exclusively girls. Not that I'm complaining, certainly! I relish teaching tech to girls. But I wonder what caused it. It could have been that I simply got a line of girls with social continuity, as in, one girl worked with me, then her friend followed her, then her friend followed her. But it could have been behavior modelling, too. It could be that the girls found it easier to see themselves soldering with a woman showing them how. It could be that working with a man was somehow awkward for them. It could be that I smelled slightly less funny. But who knows? It would be interesting to ask them, and see how many say they made a conscious choice versus how many say they didn't really think about it, and hear whether they talked about "the girl" versus "the guy", or had developed some other identifiers or reputations for each of us. Maybe the adult moderators were sending kids to one or the other of us.

What's anecdotally clear to me though, is that women need to be available to teach electronics to children--especially girls--early and often.

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Comments {1}

Never Been In a Riot

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from: crowyhead
date: Mar. 7th, 2010 09:09 pm (UTC)

I think at that age, I definitely would've gone to a woman vs. a man if I had a choice, especially in learning a skill like soldering that I would have been a little bit nervous about. If I was a little older, how cute I thought the guy vs. the woman was would have played into it, I'm sure. ;)

Actually, now that I'm thinking about skills I would like to learn but feel a bit out of league, I think in many cases presented with equally skilled teachers I would probably choose a woman to learn from (if she seemed open and friendly). For example, if I was going to pick up the guitar again and I had the choice between two similarly skilled teachers, one a woman and one a man, I would probably choose the woman because I think I would feel a little bit less like I potentially had something to prove. On the other hand, in situations where I am already proficient or skilled, I can't see it mattering too much one way or the other -- if I was going to learn a new knitting technique, for example, or attend a librarianship workshop, other concerns (like the size of the workshop and the amount of one-on-one time available) would definitely trump any gender concerns.


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