The Amazing Tech-Education Startup That’s Encouraging Girls Into STEM

littleBits, a NY-based startup is empowering kids, particularly girls, to invent and prototype with tech. We talked to Emily Tuteur, the Director of Product Design at littleBits, for more insight.

The Amazing Tech-Education Startup That's Encouraging Girls Into STEM

We all know that women are blatantly under-represented in STEM. Getting more girls and women involved and interested in STEM fields is a challenging task that some organizations and companies have thankfully taken up. littleBits – a New York-based education startup – has been doing this successfully by empowering kids, particularly girls, to invent and prototype with tech, so they can grow up to be tomorrow’s change-makers and industry leaders.

In fact, littleBits follows the Rhode Island School of Design principle of including Arts in STEM, thereby encouraging a “STEAM” school of thinking.

In a bid to encourage more girls into STEM, littleBits products are purposely gender-neutral in both their design and branding. For e.g. take their Avengers Hero Inventor Kit, which enables kids to build their own high-tech hero gauntlet while developing STEAM skills. Fans might have had to wait for years for the first female-led Marvel superhero movie (Captain Marvel, which is about to release next year), but there’s no reason girls can’t charge ahead in the meantime! The kit caters to all genders equally, with both female and male Avengers guiding kids through the building process.

We talked to Emily Tuteur (pictured below), the Director of Product Design at littleBits, about her design background, being a woman in STEM, working at a female-founded tech and design startup, and the importance of providing STEAM products to kids at a young age. 

Here’s our Q&A: 

Going from being a design intern and Junior Industrial Designer at littleBits to now being the Director of Product Design, how easy (or difficult) has it been to bring your individual design aesthetic and vision on board a larger organization?

While I certainly came to littleBits with my own design aesthetic, many of my preferences have been informed by what I’ve learned over the past six years here. In fact, evolving and discovering my own design aesthetic and vision has been a large part of my work at littleBits, both personally and professionally.

At littleBits, our products have gone through a number of different design conventions. In our early days, in 2012, we were very crafty – using construction paper and other materials to build on the DIY look. Later, we went in a more polished direction, relying on laser cuts and 3D prints – more modern-looking inventions. Today, I think we’ve struck a powerful balance between those two aesthetics; we’re at a great place between crafty and polished, and our team of designers delights in providing our customers with the most aesthetically pleasing blank canvas possible.

In order for kids to create and customize their own inventions, the blank canvas is key!

Gender-neutral design is an important littleBits value. Can you give some examples of how different the approach is when designing STEAM products that are equally attractive to girls as well? Or are the differences in approach less at the designing stage and more at the branding and marketing stages, to ensure that the toys don’t only cater to boys?

At littleBits, gender neutrality is inherent in everything we do. From the color of our circuit boards to our packaging, each of our products is deliberately designed to appeal to both girls and boys. This level of accessibility helps everyone to unleash creativity and instill a love of STEAM through the cycle of inventing.

At littleBits, gender neutrality is inherent in everything we do. From the color of our circuit boards to our packaging, each of our products is deliberately designed to appeal to both girls and boys.

We also make a conscious effort to show girls in leading, not secondary, roles. We want to show them that building and inventing is fun and exciting, and that there’s a place for them in that world.

More importantly, we strive to put girls in a position to inspire each other. It’s in our nature to want to see people like us accomplishing great things – and girls are no different. By shining a spotlight on girls who are inventing interesting things, by curating this content carefully and emphasizing projects that are colorful, varied, and representative of a variety of interests – things like art, cooking, gardening, and more – we’re putting girls in a position of power.

We also make a conscious effort to show girls in leading, not secondary, roles. We want to show them that building and inventing is fun and exciting, and that there’s a place for them in that world.

At littleBits, the inventions we hold up as examples are deliberately gender-neutral – it’s never a dollhouse or a robot, it’s a ferris wheel. So, even though we are a tech company, we don’t constantly play into stereotypes; we just make things that we think are cool and we share things that are accessible to everyone, whether they are inventing from home or participating in a project for school. In fact, if your brand sells to schools, libraries, or makerspaces, it is especially important to find ways to reinforce gender-neutral messages and product experiences in that setting, as well.

The STEAM movement has been championed by the Rhode Island School of Design. As an alumna of RISD, how crucial is it for you to ensure that kids have access to STEAM toys and products at an early age?

I attended an art and design school, so it’s safe to say that I was always very interested in the creative side of things. I feel like, personally, bringing creativity into technology has been one of the most important aspects of STEM to me. Prior to littleBits, I worked with a designer who was very interested in technology, which gave me a clear understanding that technology is not just technical – there is creativity within technology.

But the bottom line is that kids are interested in what they are interested in. Using art and design as a lens through which to see technology is a really impactful way to help them see that STEM/STEAM applies to them no matter where their interests lie.

What has your experience been like as a woman working your way up through the traditionally-referred-to-as-STEM fields? Do you feel like STEAM is more inclusive of women as compared to STEM?

STEAM is certainly more inclusive – it feels less dry. It’s not your traditional male-dominated field. I’ve been lucky to have always had female bosses and founders of companies; I’ve been able to see them as role models and leaders in the tech space, and that has been extremely influential to me.

I’ve been lucky to have always had female bosses and founders of companies; I’ve been able to see them as role models and leaders in the tech space, and that has been extremely influential to me.

How important has the fact that littleBits is founded by a woman, been to its narrative as a company that develops innovative STEAM toys that are also gender-neutral? 

Our founder Ayah Bdeir is a pioneer in the space of modular electronics; she really kicked off the competitive space that exists today.

Her story has been extremely impactful across tech toys and tech products, and her commitment to making conscious decisions in our design process that will include women is amazing. It’s clear that these types of choices have to be deliberate.

littleBits products are used at every level, from elementary schools to universities, and you’ve also partnered with NASA. What’s next for littleBits? Do you see the products being used by adults (in their 20s, 30s etc.) on an everyday basis, maybe as a means of problem-solving, better communication, or something else?

littleBits was originally created as a prototyping tool for adults. In fact, that’s what interested me in the company in the first place. As an adult, I was excited to have a way to finally use technology in my own practice.

Everyone from really young kids to their grandparents uses littleBits. Our goal is for people of all ages to use Bits at different times in their lives for different purposes. We want them to grow and learn with them – from figuring out how to make something move to using littleBits as a way to prototype a new invention.

Sneha Khale
With a background in Psychology and Criminology, Sneha has spent the past several years working in the travel and tech industries. As a writer and editor, she's most interested in developing content which is at the intersection of pop culture, gender, and contemporary lifestyle. "Don't let your 'to do' list get longer than your Netflix 'to watch' queue," is her philosophy for 2018.

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