Teaching girls to code with a bracelet

Jewelbots is a start-up that is creating a wearable device for teenage girls, which will encourage them to lean how to code and teach them basic programming skills. We caught up with co-founder Brooke Moreland to find out more…

How did Jewelbots get started?

Jewelbots was started by me and my co-founder Sara Chipps. Sara started an organisation in 2010 called Girl Develop it, which teaches women how to code in person in classes. I think it's in over 50 cities now and they've taught 17,000 women how to code.

A lot of the feedback that they got was a lot of women saying, 'This is great, I wish I knew this was even an option for me. I didn't even think about computer science, it wasn't even on my radar and it's exciting and cool and I just wish I knew it was a thing.'

And I had a similar experience. I started my first start-up in 2009, it was a tech start-up called Fashism but it was hard for me running a tech team not having that background.

Coding wasn't ever really something I learned in school or ever something I thought I would like to be good at. I started trying to learn that stuff later life.

Image from Jewelbots

I did a Girl Develop It class and Sara and I stayed friends, and we were talking a couple of years ago and she had an idea to do a wearable that was more geared for girls, and that wasn't about fitness. She was doing a lot of work in hardware and people were making robots and she wanted to do something a bit more focused on jewellery in the thought that it might appeal to girls. And I thought that was such a cool idea so I decided to join her and bring it to life. 

Image from Jewelbots

You’ve just completed a Kickstarter campaign, how did that go?

Yeah! We raised a little bit of funding from some angel investors and we wanted to do the Kickstarter for two reasons: we needed to raise some more money to get the bracelets produced and we wanted to be able to show that this is something that people want. We wanted to be able to show some traction.

And I think we were really able to do that. We set a pretty modest goal of $30,000 that we thought we could hit, and we ended up passing that in the first 19 hours of the campaign, which was just super exciting. We ended up raising nearly $170,000 altogether which is really great. We have 1,800 backers, people really liked what we're doing, so it's really exciting for us.

What’s next?

The next step is to get the bracelets produced. We have a little bit more mechanical engineering stuff to sort out before we're done with our designs but we're finishing that up and we want to get them produced as soon as possible.

We're promising next Spring because these things always take longer than you're expecting but we really want to get that process going as soon as possible and get them out in the world and then we'll get to see what people like and what they don't like. We really just want to get them out in the world, that's what we're focusing on now.

How does the Jewelbot bracelet work? How does it teach girls coding skills?

The actual bracelet has a motor that vibrates and four LED lights, so using the Jewelbots app girls can command it to communicate with other bracelets. It's a mesh network of bracelets, you don't even need a phone to communicate. Unlike most fitness trackers, with this you can communicate bracelet to bracelet.

Right out of the box there's a couple of things that it can do, it senses proximity so if you are near your two best friends, you can programme it to light up blue every time they are around you, or orange to light up when you are near another friend. You can send messages to each other, using the button on the bracelet so that your friends receive a vibration, it's a secret way of communicating, which is cool for the girls.

The coding part comes in when they plug the bracelet into the computer. Using an open source Arduino software they can actually programme it to do whatever they want. They can link it to their Instagram, they can make it react to the weather, anything that they can think of to do, they can programme it themselves. And we're going to have tech tutorials on our website so you can get started even if you have no idea how to programme, you can copy and paste and change your variable and just start playing little by little to get the hang of the environment, work out what you can do and then learn from the community really is what we want to inspire.

Anything that you can do that will get some girls interested in computer science is worthwhile

Image from Jewelbots

Why is it important to have products like Jewelbots that teach girls these skills?

What we're really seeing in tech is that there aren't women in positions of power, certainly not in engineering. In fact, the number of women studying computer science has actually gone down since the 80s.

Women are making big leaps and bounds in other fields, medicine and law, and other fields where the number of women studying these subjects is on the rise, but computer science has gone in the other direction. There are fewer women majoring in computer science now than there was in the 80s, which is just such a shame – especially now that it is an even more important job than ever before because people who have these tech jobs are literally writing the future. The lack of women in these roles means that women's voices aren't being represented and we think that's a huge problem so we really want to teach girls that it's important. And we want to introduce that in a fun way because kids aren't going to get excited about an education tool, they want something that's cool and they can customise and figure out and problem solve. It’s not just important, it’s also fun.

People are realising now that this is an issue and everyone's trying different stuff and I think it's all great. Anything that you can do that will get some girls interested in computer science is worthwhile and it's a goal that we should all be thinking about.

Image from Jewelbots

If something like this had existed when you were in your teens would you have explored computer science as an option?

Absolutely, I loved doing friendship bracelets and all that stuff with my friends. I loved stuff with my friends and I loved making jewellery and craft and those were the kind of creative projects that I was really drawn to. Whereas programming a computer, that's not something that would have ever occurred to me as something fun. But I definitely would have benefited from something like this for sure.

But you’ve not just been doing that through this one product. What else have Jewelbots done?

We’ve done two hack days for girls and their parents, Take Your Daughter To Hack Days, and we're going to be doing more in the future. In fact we just did one in New York and it was sold out, we had 220 girls and their parents turn up and they just worked all day on a project.

We gave them a tutorial in the morning, they had these little computers the size of a poker chip and they could work with conductive thread to sew in clothes to light up. We asked them to bring a piece of clothing with them so they could make some really cool projects.

One girl made a dress with a headlamp on it so that when she went camping she wouldn't have to wear a headlamp it would be part of the dress and someone else attached lights to a dollhouse and made it light up when she played music at her recital.

The girls made some really cool projects and a lot of them had never done any kind of programming before but they used the same software that we're going to be using with Jewelbots so we wanted to get them comfortable in that environment and see how they did. And it was great, girls who had never programmed before really took to it and got it really quickly.


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