Ninety percent of parents want their children to learn computer science. Only 40 percent of schools teach programming.
That’s a statistic that worried Sara Chipps, former CTO of the Flatiron School and current CEO of Jewelbots, a company that makes codeable friendship bracelets for tweens and teens. With Jewelbots, she hopes to get more children interested in coding—specifically girls.
Chipps gave a keynote presentation as well as a more in-depth lecture at the All Things Open conference recently in Raleigh, North Carolina. She outlined the educational goals for Jewelbots, the company history, girls’ responses to Jewelbots during user research, and backend specs of the devices themselves.
The Jewelbots concept helped fund itself through Kickstarter, raising $166,000 in June 2015. The initial goal was $30,000, which they achieved in the first day. By late October 2017, they were nearing the milestone of sending out their 10,000th device.
Jewelbots devices are entirely open source, with repositories on GitHub. They encourage their users to share “mods” with each other. Users can program their devices to light up in patterns of colors when their friends are nearby, and can send secret messages to each other.
The company has recorded a 44 percent conversion rate from users to coders. Kids are writing C++ in the Arduino IDE. “There’s nothing like being in the room with an 8-year-old who is so stoked about C++,” Chipps said. “The best part is to see their faces light up when they realize the possibilities.”
How do kids get comfortable with writing in C? “We take the central and peripheral communication and abstract it out,” Chipps said. “As a teaching tool, we tell kids that functions are kind of like emoji—we don't want to have to write the same things over and over. We can name our functions all kinds of things when they don’t have to be scalable. It’s fun for kids to work with ‘unicorns,’ ‘rainbows,’ and so on, and it’s fun for adults, too!”
User research is crucial for hardware, as its development cycle is usually longer and more costly than software. The company reached out to local New York area schools and met with kids to learn what appealed to them. The product was initially supposed to be fashion-oriented, but the girls Chipps spoke to weren’t interested. Instead, the idea of friendship bracelets kept coming up, and she knew she had to shift her perspective.
“You may think you remember what it’s like to be 12 years old, but you don’t,” Chipps said.
The Jewelbot device has four RGB LED lights in a flower pattern that can display a wide range of colors, as well as a central button. (In user testing, the flower shape won in a landslide over other designs.) Kids wear it on an adjustable band. Each Jewelbot can talk to three other Jewelbots, Alexa, a phone, and a drone at the same time.