Name: Claire Smith
Home: Parkville, Maryland
Makerspace: My Home. I am in the process of making my own mobile maker space.
Day Job: Teaching middle/high school girls, who are homeschooled, computer science and about the maker movement
How’d you get started making?
What type of maker would you classify yourself as?
An eclectic maker.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve made?
My light-up prom dress. I have watched every season of Project Runway since I was five. I love the challenges that they have, especially the unconventional ones. I do not follow fashion, but the day after the MET Gala, Claire Danes’ dress designed by Zac Posen appeared all over the Facebook feeds. I thought it was magical! Having some background in coding, I wanted to figure out how that magic happened. The more I searched, the more I realized that the “magic” was really the tech, and I was hooked. I thought, “Maybe one day I can do that!” But I had no idea where I would have to wear something so fancy — since I am a homeschooler, my everyday uniform consisted of pjs and baggy t-shirts.
Since I am a triplet (only girl) and every event is super expensive x3, I didn’t have enough money to get my dream dress and pay for the tickets for prom. On March 11, 2017, My mom and I went to an event called Cinderella’s Closet in Aberdeen. I found my dress there with the help of all the “Fairy Godmothers.” I fell in love with it! It is a LeGala dress from a few years ago, but it was “new” to me.
That April, I also participated in the 2017 Baltimore Hackathon and got my hands on a wearable electronic beginners kit. Mind you, I had never touched wearable electronics before. I had worked with an Arduino and an Arduino Feather but never an Adafruit Flora board. I ended up not using it, and instead going with VR and 3D printing. My teammate, Bella Palumbi, and I ended up winning 2nd place in the hardware track for our project History Flip, but, in my mind, I was hoping to try something with the Adafruit kit.
When I got home from the event, I looked at my dress and wondered if I could hack it. I remembered Zac Posen’s MET Gala dress. I had an idea! The next morning, after talking to my mom, and her encouraging me to try, I set myself down to research. I ended up watching quite a few tutorials. I looked at what I had. I asked myself what would happen if I ruined my dress, since it was so expensive and there was no option to get another one. I decided, in the famous words of Tim Gunn, to have a “Make it Work!” moment, and went for it. I settled on a video I wanted to use. I sketched out the design I wanted to follow on the underskirt of the dress with dressmakers chalk. I planned where the Adafruit Flora was going to be attached, as well as the battery pack. That took me quite a bit of time, since I needed to figure out how to reach the pack but not accidentally turn it on or off by bending over or gathering the skirt together. The way Adafruit wearables work is that you can’t have the conductive thread touch itself. I was freaking out that my dress could short out or catch on fire during prom.
The sewing was the longest part of this project. It all had to be done by hand. I turned on my computer and watched a whole bunch of Project Runway reruns as I sewed. At one point I thought I was done and realized that, since I am a lefty, everything was backwards. I had to undo the Flora board, the battery pack, and the last LED and move it to the other side. Thankfully, I had experience pulling out seams because I was a costume intern at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company for a few months when I was 16. After attaching the Flora board correctly, I had to plug in my dress and code the board so the lights would turn on. I held my breath hoping that all my connections worked and set to working on the code. It failed. Nothing worked.
After a few tries and retries and a few more resewing attempts to make sure the connections were solid, I got it to light up and change colors! The way the conductive thread works is that you have to loop the thread multiple times through the electronic components and then sew a few stitches out away from it. If anything touches after you attach the battery pack, the fabric can catch on fire. Precision is important.
Then came the next part of the challenge. I wanted to have the dress change colors with movement. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make it work. My parents are not techie at all. And my brothers, that do code, are not familiar with Adafruit Flora or Arduino. Frustrated, I jumped on Facebook to ask my all female tech group (Ladies Storm Hackathons) if they had tried something like this. Not many had, but the few that did tried to help me troubleshoot the best they could. They all gave me different approaches. I tried them all. After re-sewing the connections yet again, I got one light to change colors when I moved it, but all the rest were not lighting up at all. The best solution the group came up with was to solder the connections. I was worried about that option because of my beginner soldering skills, and the possibility that I would cause the fabric to catch on fire, leaving me without the dress at all. So I made a final decision to just have it cycle the code thru the LEDs that I programmed. I thanked my group, and sent them the designs of my finished project. It got a ton of rave reviews and likes. One of the members of the group, a writer at Mashable, asked to do a story on it, and the rest is history.
When I went to my homeschool prom, I heard girls say that my dress was pure “magic.” The same reaction as I had when I saw Claire Danes’ dress. I know my dress went viral but I find it funny that when I talk about it in conversation, many people still don’t know what Maker Faire is or what the Maker Movement is. The only thing I can do is Google and show them my links. There has been some negative talk too. For instance, someone said I could achieve the same thing with christmas lights under the skirt. Another one said I don’t have to “girlify” the tech world. I believe girlifying the tech world is a great way to reach other girls to make them understand that STEM is for them, as well. I just don’t let the haters bother me because I see how much of a positive impact my dress has had to the girls already!
What else are you up to now that prom is over?
I am attending honors classes at CCBC. This fall, I am running a 3D printing Cohort for 15 girls. It is funded by NCWIT AspireIT in conjunction with Be You, INC. I also just found out that I got funding from NCWIT AspireIT to run my own wearable electronic program for 10 girls in the homeschool community this spring. It will cover 10 girls (I wish I could do more but wearable tech is expensive). I am hoping that as part of our final project, we will be able to do a light up fashion show at Light City Baltimore 2018. I am also teaching Scratch this fall to 20 middle/high school girls and boys in the homeschool community through my co-op.
What’s something you’d like to make next?
I’m not sure, I mostly make things spontaneously :) I am interested in biomimicry robots. I have made a few already. I am also interested in wearable electronics. Sometimes I want to be a fashion designer and incorporate tech into fashion or I want to be an engineer and create the next big thing or I want to be a computer scientist and program robots. But if I think about it all, all of those jobs combined is just being part of the Maker Movement. So my ultimate goal is to show other girls that tech is amazing and that they should not shy away from it! Technology is here to stay and we ALL need the skills even if you aren’t going into a tech career.
Any advice for people reading this?
That being a young woman in tech, you have a number of obstacles to overcome. You have to believe in yourself. Know that your ideas are not the same as males in the field and that that is okay. They are not lesser. They are a different way to see the world around us.
Also, math. Math should be challenging. And girls can do hard things. Getting a B in math class is okay. There are a lot of guys that are getting C’s in math and are becoming computer scientists. As women, we think that if we are not getting straight A’s in math or science then that field isn’t for us. But that isn’t true. I actually had to take remedial math when I entered community college last year and I am now taking Pre-Calc and will be taking all those required Calculus classes as well.
Who else should we profile?
My triplet brothers Ian and Dorian Smith
Where can people find you on the web?