E2 textile project links indigenous cultures, electronic technology

ASU’s School of Social Transformation is partnering with the University of Pennsylvania and Salt River Community Schools in the E2 Textiles Project, is trying to increase Native American students' interest in engineering by combining it with textiles and culture.

Bryan Brayboy, a professor in the School of Social Transformation, is one of the principal investigators for the project, and is responsible for collecting data, managing the budget and overseeing data collection and analyses.

“Given the low levels of Native peoples in computer science nationally, it is important that we create access to young people to see this as a viable field of study,” Brayboy said.

The project aims to engage the youth of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community in thinking about science and programming as a potential field for study, and demystify technology and its uses for members of the SRPMIC.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems are the ways in which tribal community members think about and engage in the world, usually through language and culture, he said.

The project aims to connect these IKS with electronic technologies, so that young people understand that electronic technologies do not have to conflict with what they know as tribal peoples.

Although the project works primarily with junior high youth, it also conducts outreach activities workshops as part of a college preparatory program for community youth.

Students in the project write programs that make LED lights blink a certain number of times, based on the programming.

“We believe that sewing the lights onto textiles also allows students to wear what they make, and incorporates some of what they already know (sewing) with what they know less about (programming),” he said.

The project incorporates indigenous cultures through the use of certain plants, animals or landmarks that are familiar to students as Native peoples in the design of the lights in the textiles.

“But, we also paid attention to the ways that students learn and think about teaching and learning as Native peoples,” Brayboy said. “So, it was more than the curriculum or materials. It also incorporated the pedagogical components of how communities think.”

Brayboy got involved with the project when Kristin Searle, who now serves as a graduate research assistant on the project, was working on a similar project at the University of Pennsylvania, and thought it would be interesting to engage in this work with Native communities.

Brayboy said the School of Social Transformation had a good working relationship with the SRPMIC and got approval from the tribal council to do their work.

"It dawned on me that a lot of the ways in which learning was happening would connect well to how we know that at least some American Indian students already learn in community settings, and potentially foster inter-generational learning because many youth don't know a lot about crafts, but their parents do," Searle said.

Searle said she aims to improve Native youth's experiences in schools by increasing their self confidence and academic achievement.

"The E2 Textiles Project provides students with an opportunity to learn something about their cultural heritage and also to learn something about computing, which we know is a really important way for kids to be able to participate in society today," she said.

The first moment when the lights on a student's project turns on and he or she smiles, is special, she said.

Searle said schools are encouraging students to learn computing skills and participate in hands-on activities, and engagement has been somewhat unsuccessful for female students and students of color.

"By integrating high-tech elements like LED lights and a micro-controller with low-tech elements like needle and thread, we're able to tap into knowledge that students already possess and we're able to engage students in computing and making without falling back on traditional projects like video game design or robot building that don't necessarily appeal to a lot of students," she said.

Searle said incorporating indigenous cultures with technology is a challenge, but it gives American Indian youth opportunities to learn about cultural heritage practices and computing.

"Our work has the potential to make a big impact in terms of broadening participation in computer science. It also has the potential to shift school-community relations in Indian country," she said.

Cristobal Martinez, a graduate research assistant with the project, said he believes digital literacy skills are crucial to communication in our society.

He said the E2 Textiles Project is unique because it works with a local Native American community to determine effective ways to design culturally responsive learning programs, and ensures that Native American students see themselves as indigenous people through engagement with technology.

"To me, this indicates that in order to broaden participation, we have to advance successful curriculum and educational opportunities across diversity," he said.

Reach the reporter at ekamezak@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @emikamezaki

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