From ambitious entrepreneurs to casual meet-up participants, women are proactive about engaging with STEM and with other women in their field. Besides their shared affinity with science, tech, engineering, and math, they often find that they have another thing in common. Many of these women can recall a time when they walked into a classroom or office, looked around, and noticed that they were sharing the space with an overwhelming majority of men.
This was the experience of Nicole Messier, a former student of aerospace engineering, who recalls that she had sparse female role models, teachers, or peers in her undergraduate program. Instead of following a traditional aerospace career, Messier instead decided to help change STEM’s evident gender imbalance. She is now the CEO of blink blink, a purveyor of creative circuit kits that help beginners get their feet wet with simple electronics, arts & crafts with embedded circuitry, and wearable fashion technology. Not only did she co-found the company, she also collaboratively designed the kits with the very girls that they’re made for.
Through a series of after school workshops in and around New York City and New Orleans, Messier developed her kit with the girls in her program. She presented the girls with different materials, different aesthetics, and different brand designs. She found that the girls responded very positively towards this collaborative structure in which they could voice opinions about what materials they liked or disliked, and what designs and packaging appealed to them aesthetically. For the record, the girls gravitated towards sketch- and doodle-style designs that looked like they could have made it themselves.
Having such a direct hand in designing the kits resulted in a profound feeling of empowerment. Messier notes that girls made a point to follow up with her personally in order to show what they had made with their kit, because they had been so involved in the co-design process. In addition to exploring technology and new avenues for their abounding creativity, these girls were exercising their ability to speak up and demonstrate leadership.
Co-designing with the girls is a good way to go. It encourages them, it makes them feel welcome in a world where they otherwise simply do not see sufficient female representation. And co-designing her product with young girls isn’t the only avenue that Messier is pursuing to empower them. She also runs the blink blink website, where she hosts a blog showcasing video interviews of women who work as engineers and creative technologists. Additionally, there is also a community curated aspect to her blog, where girls are welcome to send in projects they have made so that they may be featured and shared.
Messier did not originally envision the company that she now leads. What was developed two years ago as a graduate research thesis evolved into the after school workshop program that Messier and blink blink co-founder and CTO Joselyn McDonald brought to middle and high schools.
As word spread of Messier and Mcdonald’s workshop, demand for the program increased. Messier decided to design a kit that could reach a wider audience, and since the goal itself is to get girls to engage with creative and technological pursuits, Messier opted to co-design the product with the girls who participated in the program.
Messier says that bringing an after school workshop to New York City schools is possibly one of the hardest things to do because they’re already so overbooked. But with a clear goal of empowering and inspiring young girls, she was determined to make it work. Messier and McDonald contacted as many schools as they could, looking for preexisting art and fashion programs into which they could integrate their program. Once they had their foot in the door, they found that many of the girls in those programs had never worked with technology. Thus, Messier and McDonald decided to focus on organic intersections between art, fashion, and technology: embedding LEDs into a hand-knit scarf, using conductive tape to make a greeting card light up, and other accessible beginner projects.
Yes, blink blink is a product designed specifically for girls. And while many products on the market are pointlessly gendered, and some criticisms of gendered products are valid (do women really need a pink stapler instead of a black one?), Messier believes that this is not one of them. That is to say, sometimes it is incredibly beneficial to create something that is not only specifically for girls to use, but to do so by hearing girls’ needs and creating something with them.
This is especially important when it invites girls to occupy a space that is potentially intimidating because it is already largely occupied by men. She says, “There are a ton of electronic toys on the market. They don’t say that they’re designed for boys, but they typically have imagery that is catered for boys, that represents boys on the packaging.” She points out that no, products — especially children’s toys — should not be gendered, but until male is no longer the implicit default, there need to be other, more welcoming avenues for girls to explore the world of technology. “By co-designing with the girls,” she says, “I am inviting girls to the table. I know first hand that I lacked role models at school.” She aims to change that. And while this is neither the sole nor the first product designed specifically to get girls into STEM, Messier says, “Good. There should be a lot of toys, a lot of avenues for girls to explore technology.”
Now, blink blink has sold out of their first round of kits, and they just reached their $25,000 Kickstarter goal this morning to fund a round of two brand new circuit kits. With about a day left in their campaign, they hope to reach their stretch goal of $30,000 in order to fund a DIY speaker kit out of eTextiles, fabric, and paper. In addition to designing more kits, they also plan on publishing project tutorials on their website. They will continue to conduct workshops through the summer in collaboration with the Girl Scouts of America and the STEAMfwd event, returning to their after school programs in the fall.