Courtesy of Fawn Qiu
In graduate school, Qiu went out into middle schools in the Boston area, where she taught technology courses. After graduating, she brought her creative engineering workshops into the community at museums and after-school programs.
What she noticed in these community settings was that they attracted a diverse crowd, including more women and people of color.
“If you walk into a tech competition, you usually see more males. I think why there were more women in our project was because it was very crafty,” she said.
Qiu formerly worked as a product manager for Amazon, but left her job in early 2016. Shortly after, she applied for and was accepted into the TED residency program where she implemented a project focused on the creative side of technology.
Her TED Talk features two young girls who took her Flappy Bird Box concept and modified it to make it their own: While the goal in Flappy Bird is to ensure the bird does not come into contact with pipes, the girls made the object of their game to prevent Justin Bieber from getting caught by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Regardless of the object of their game, students use the same concepts, and use magnets and magnet sensors to bring their box games to life.
It’s the ability to customize that makes projects like Flappy Bird Box relevant to everyone, versus the limited creations students can make with plastic kits, Qiu said.
“Maybe one project is more complicated, one is easier,” she said. “But you see people trying to personalize it with their own interaction and components. People tend be more proactive and engaged. They no longer feel like it’s work for them and they’re happy to create their own version.”
Qiu, now self-employed, is brainstorming new projects, and creating videos and online tutorials for young engineers. She’s working on providing a bridge between the easy projects to teaching kids how to program their creations, which involves coding.
“I think that’s worth spending time on so they understand how to code things, but it’s still a challenge to scaffold these projects so that they learn like a traditional class where they can learn basic stuff and slowly do more complicated projects,” Qiu said.
Her projects have received positive feedback from students and teachers, she said, who have told her it’s a more engaging way to learn about science and engineering concepts. But a challenge has been assessing how effective her lessons are.
“If you’re learning math, you can see it’s working because you got a full score on your math SAT. But with something like this, it’s harder to measure the benefit. I think parents still see it as an elective, but not something necessary,” she said.
Despite not having a metric, Qiu believes making science more fun could help push a larger variety of people into technology.
Having a diverse workforce across the board is crucial, Qiu said, because seeing someone that looks like them working in a career helps young people to envision themselves in that same career.
“If you’re like a black kid growing up in the Bronx in New York, if you’re able to see a lot of examples of other black engineers that are talking about their career, which you don’t see that many of, I think that helps them to see themselves in those roles. But if you only see your ethnicity or gender represented in certain career paths, maybe you feel like you’re more limited,” she said.
And with greater diversity, comes more and better ideas, she added.
“I think a lot of times, the products we’re creating are being used by very diverse audiences. When you’re creating a product, you want to be able to empathize with the user. I think sometimes it’s hard to understand when you only have one type of people creating the products, but it’s actually being used by a diverse audience.”
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