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Fawn Qiu’s DIY Projects Are Bringing Fun, Diversity to STEM Education

Fawn Qiu at a following one of her workshops at eBay. Courtesy of Fawn Qiu

When one of Fawn Qiu's favorite mobile games was removed from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store in early 2014, she was faced with two options: never update her phone again, or create a real-life version of the game that could never be deleted.

She decided to go with the latter.

The disappearance of "Flappy Bird" is one of several everyday obstacles Qiu has faced that inspired her to combine DIY projects with engineering concepts. It's an approach to science and technology she views as a possible way to get more women and people of color into the field.

"Because I work in the technology field, I realized there's just not a lot of females," Qiu, a multi-media technologist, told NBC News. "So I thought this might be a way not just to encourage kids, but maybe there's a way to engage students early on so it can create a pipeline where more minorities and females can go into the technology workforce."

In July 2016, Qiu gave a TED Talk detailing some of the simple, low-cost DIY projects she's created for kids that teach them about engineering. Her projects use everyday materials, which allow them to be more accessible to students, she said.

One project involves the use of fabric and googly eyes to make light up animals; another is a simple way to make a light bulb light up with the use of paper and copper tape, all for the cost of less than $1.

Qiu said her inspiration for making engineering more engaging to youth stemmed from feedback that many students didn't understand how they could apply what they learned in school in the real world and that they were bored with traditional ways the subject was taught. Existing kits designed to help kids learn about these concepts, Qiu said, often consist of hard plastic parts that, when assembled, just look like a robot.

"It's not very inviting, and the price point is not accessible for not just people, but also classrooms. How do you make things more inviting?" she said. "It's by incorporating materials like paper and fabric because they're familiar with it. Even a 7-year-old has used these materials, so they're not intimidated by it."

Qiu said kids are able to learn fundamental mechanics and engineering concepts, such as how hinges might move the ears of a fabric creature, what kind of motors are needed to make certain body parts of an animal move, and what kind of sensors are needed for the types of interactions kids want for their animal creations.

But while Qiu has made these projects for kids, engineering wasn't something she was exposed to until she got to graduate school. When she was younger, she held an interest in self-taught crafts like making friendship bracelets and knitting. But She didn't realize she could apply high-tech concepts to her low-tech crafts.

"I think that's what most people experience, is they never are exposed to it because it's not mandatory. And there's a certain perception that computer science is just doing things on a computer and not everyone feels comfortable with that or is interested in it," she said. "I was never interested because of my lack of exposure and lack of understanding of all the different things you can do."

Qiu received her bachelor's degree in finance from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and her master's degree in education from Harvard with an emphasis in technology and innovation. At Harvard, she took classes focused on engineering and creative engineering and learned how to use materials like conductive ink and fabric, both of which can be used to make circuits, among other things.

"And you can draw with conductive ink and program something that you can sew into fabric and clothes. I thought that was really empowering," she said. "Those projects are really cool, and that's what made me want to learn more about coding. I think what really draws me is the realization that there area so many interesting applications from computer science and interesting projects I saw based in engineering, so I started learning about it myself."

Fawn Qiu has given a TED Talk on projects for young engineers and has received a grant from the organization. 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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