Knitting is an Engineering Exercise

There is much discussion about how we need to make sure that the Arts don’t get lost in the discussion about increased STEM emphasis. STEAM is the new term being used that realizes Arts are not separate.  My personal experience is that scientists and engineers are amazingly creative and engage in types of art that fuels this creativity: music, drawing, painting, fiber arts of all types.  And who hasn’t seen an amazing designed and crafted piece of technology and know that there was an artist inside the engineer.

Over the Christmas and New Year break, conveniently coinciding with my school break, I was able to indulge in my creative joy of knitting.  I love to knit.  Seeing the stitches turn into a pattern and then a final object is enticing.   It’s addicting and sitting still long enough to turn yarn into fabric is a meditation.

An integrated part of Engineering and Knitting is making mistakes in a safe space and learning from them.  Below are some of the lessons I’ve learned through my knitting experiments.

1) The reason why every pattern tells you to check your gauge (the combination of yarn + needle size+ knitter that equals rows and stitches per inch) is that the pieces don’t fit if you don’t.  I have many objects that were supposed to be hats but are too floppy or too small and get turned into doll purses or dress-up items.

Engineering lesson: Accurate and meaningful measurement are important.  Make a scale model to see how it all fits together.

2) Measure the person you’re making a sweater for.  My first truly ambitious knitted item was a reindeer pattern sweater for my brother.  I was 14 at the time and estimated how big I needed to make it.  It was at least 5 sizes too big.  Even after he went through his first growth spurt, it was too big.

Engineering lesson: Know who and what you are designing for.  One size does not fit all.

3) The yarn you use will make a difference in how the item drapes or doesn’t, feels soft or scratchy, is warm for winter or breathable for summer, is stretchy to fit or is sturdy for structure.  And while there are great, low cost synthetic yarns that are perfectly suited for getting beat up (i.e. kids’ hats, mittens, scarves), investing in good wool or cotton can turn an item into a wardrobe staple or the blanket on the couch that everyone fights for.

Engineering lesson: Materials matter. Understanding how different materials behave and react to shaping or stress will help your design.

4) Trying new techniques can be daunting and if the the stakes are high, downright scary.  Don’t learn  on the most expensive yarn, because you might have to tear it apart and start over.  Start with a cheaper “waste” yarn and play around until you understand the technique well enough that you can move to the better fibers without risking the whole project.

Engineering lesson: Find a proxy material that can be used to test some models before digging in to the “good stuff”.  You will understand the concepts better and may see a problem that you didn’t plan for but can fix without waste.

I am now going to follow my own advice and try out a new technique called a Moebius loop.  As a scientist, how can I not try that technique!

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A System to Support Solutions

In any increasingly technical world, there is a need for a more scientifically literate population.  We are also facing a glut in problems – environmental, social, economic, and cultural – that may have their solution in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines.  To solve these problems, we need an inclusive engagement in STEM as we’ve never had before, in particular under-represented populations: women, people of color, and all income levels.

My vision is to build an organization that engages the energy and combined creativity of girls to tackle environmental and economic problems from a STEM perspective.  I think there is an untapped resource in our at-risk communities that can be unleashed for amazing results.

Articles by smart people who have been looking at this topic for longer than I have are available showing a shortage of female talent in the STEM fields (Science / Technology / Engineering / Math) and that our STEM literacy as a society is suffering.  As a female engineer, my passion has been for encouraging more girls to join STEM fields.  There are many Social, Environmental and Economic (SEE) problems that have solutions in STEM and I believe there is an intervention point for increased solutions by encouraging more girls and women to enter the STEM fields. To find the intervention points, I created a system diagram that explores: (1) Why is there a gender gap in STEM? and (2) How can we encourage STEM literacy and solutions for SEE problems?

On the diagram, the (+) and (-) don’t indicate direction but polarity.  A (+) sign indicates that when something changes the connected thing changes in the same way.  A (-) indicates that connected objects change in the opposite way.  I follow through the diagram in prose after the image.

system diagram for STEM

Since I’m interested in solutions for Social, Environmental and Economic (SEE) problems, let’s start at SEE solutions object. As more SEE solutions are out in the market, more people are willing to engage with STEM so that increases STEM literacy which increases understanding of SEE problems (food access, climate change, income inequality) which leads to more people able to bring STEM solutions.  A reinforcing loop – the R with the arrow – that I’ve labeled “Solutions”.  We can follow through the diagram in similar manner, showing linkage, loops and polarity of connections.

With increased SEE solutions based in STEM, science can strengthen its public image and shift it, from crazy white male to diverse populations and ideas.   Positive PR can increase the quality of STEM education and can pique the interest of girls in two ways: a general increase in STEM and seeing role models that they can identify with.

Once a girl is interested in STEM or a woman is in a STEM career or academic path, there are pressures from society which try to limit or remove that interest based on gender “norms” and these pressures can balance out (balancing loop – B with arrow) any systemic interest that has been created by other means.  However, as those pressures are reduced, confidence can grow leading to more female role models in STEM careers in business or academia, which feeds into the Solutions loop.  These are in the “Society”, “Confidence” and “Change the Script” loops.

When considering potential intervention points, societal “norms” are critical and may have the most lasting effect but they tend to be the most difficult to solve.  Many fantastic organizations are working on this problem and there is tremendous intersectionality with gender equality, diversity and self-esteem movements.

A key intervention that can be influenced as a starting point is the quality of STEM education, both of children and adults.  As the level of quality education goes up, it impacts the interest of girls and the STEM literacy of the general population, which can feedback into the societal pressures and into SEE solutions loop.

And solutions are the goal.  What this system diagram doesn’t show is my vision of thriving, respectful, passionate discourse about our understanding of and care for each other and our home planet.

In the spirit of discourse, please leave a respectful, encouraging, edifying comment.  Thanks for reading!

In Progress!

My first post is in progress and will be published soon.  Check back again.  I promise you (and my Capstone project advisor) that it will be here by the end of October 2014.