Observations from Maker Faire Bay Area 2016

This weekend I had the opportunity to run a booth at the Bay Area Maker Faire: Microcontrollers for Hacking LEDs. My goal was to have folks writing a program in a minute or less, and we got at least 100 people to write their first program this weekend! It was exciting, rewarding, and taught us a lot about how to encourage diversity in tech.

If you visited our booth at Maker Faire and are looking to reuse our booth setup for your own educational purposes, I’ve put all our resources on on Maker Faire 2016 Project page.

My Maker team and I huddled after the event, and here are some of our main take aways (context here is that our booth had folks coding the animation for a nightlight):

1. Yes, anyone can code! And anyone can get joy from the power of coding! - From the 5-year-old who exclaimed “I want to do it again!”, to the skater teenager who looked too-cool-for-school and then clapped with giddy joy, to the grandma who spent 20 minutes writing new programs for her nightlight, our booth proved that anyone can code. Not one person who gave it a try walked away without having their program run. And for those of us in the software industry, we can often forget what it feels like to see your first program run. The smiles, the spontaneous laughter followed by “I did that?!”, and the feeling of empowerment were all things we were so happy to give this weekend.

2. The narrative of “I can code” is missing - While we got most folks to walk up to our booth, the ones we missed were the ones who said “Oh, I don’t code” and walked away. But if multiple 5-year-olds can do it, what’s the say your average adult at the Maker Faire can’t? It’s just that folks have identified themselves as a non-coder, and as a result, they’re missing out. Our favorite visits from this weekend were the adults who said “I can’t code”, but they gave it a shot anyways. They always left with the biggest grins.

3. The language of coding isn’t inclusive, but it can be - We A/B tested a number of different invitations over the course of the weekend. We tried:

  • Come code with us!

  • Would you like to customize this nightlight?

  • Would you like to program this nightlight?

  • Come play with this nightlight!

Probably not shocking: “program” and “code” performed the worst. “Customize” and “play” did far better in encouraging people to approach our demo. “Program” and “code” probably tap into the “I’m not a coder” narrative that’s been baked into people’s sense of identity. But everyone thinks that they can “customize” or “play” with something. For those in the coding education space, we encourage you to experiment with the language when you introduce coding. We found that moving the language to a more inclusive framing around play and customization encouraged more people to give it a shot.

On the flip side, we also saw a few folks be unnecessarily dismissive of their own children’s coding. We would conclude sessions with “You just wrote a program!”, which a couple of parents followed up with “barely” or “but she only changed the color names.” These kids were deflated when their parents made these comments. But there’s no reason we really need reserve labels because “real coding is X”. We can all be coders; we just need to start from a point of inclusiveness.

4. We have an opportunity to inspire girls when they’re young - We saw a distressing trend this weekend: We saw plenty of girls before age <15 who were willing to give coding a shot, but few young women from about 15-25 invited themselves to code. Many women with boyfriends or husbands pushed their partner forward and let them interact with the keyboard, or hung back altogether. The documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap does a great job of explaining how women at this age tend to drop out of science. Nothing we were able to say to these women got them to approach the keyboard. Our main take away: help girls before age 15 see themselves as coders. We tried to do this by ending interactions with the <15 crowd with “you’re a coder now” or encouraging natural talent if we saw it.

5. There are lots of amazing people out there who are working on tech diversity - One of the amazing things about Maker Faire is the number of inspiring folks working to build beautiful things and educate. I had the pleasure of meeting lots of educators and makers this weekend. Specifically, I wanted to tip my hat to the Blind Arduino Project. They’re helping folks with disabilities connect with the Maker movement and technology. Find more pointers to coding education and diversity in tech resources on my Resources page.

Thanks to the team that made Microcontrollers for Hacking LEDs happen! 

  Pictured left to right: Mom, Tyler, self, and Amanda.

Pictured left to right: Mom, Tyler, self, and Amanda.