Where are all the women inventors?

I’m sitting in on a Social Impact Analysis course hosted by Acumen. The course is project based and with my project, I’m exploring the question: How might we inspire more women to become inventors?

Some data on the problem here:





Sharing Human Technology with Plants


This is the title of a 2014 post by Inventor Sun Tianqi. In the post he asks the question: What if plants had more control over their behavior? He explores answers to this question in his robotoc and AI work. Hexa robot pictured above. See it in action here



The Plantoid Project








When to Take Creative Risks

It’s more often than you think.

Now, if you are building a bridge that can hurt people if it fails, take fewer risks. But if you’re given a prompt or an assignment in which you don’t have to actually build the outcome, you should take risks.  And if you are tasked to make an art piece that challenges the status quo, you should do it. Taking creative risks helps you build creative muscle.

However, too often our blanket response to a challenge is risk aversion. We don’t stop to evaluate the situation and ask ourselves: “Is this a good time for me to take creative risks?” Too often, we default to conservative without giving it any thought.

Taking creative risks helps you get over the fear of looking stupid in front of other people. A fear that we all need to get over. A fear that is holding us back.



from “Make Better Stuff” to a Focus on People

About 500 years ago I gave a TEDx talk called “Make Better Stuff.” It was set in the context of the rise of digital fabrication. My talk was a plea to seize the opportunity, to push beyond making 3D printed key chains and arduino controlled toy cars and really engage in using this technology to make the world better. The focus was on the stuff that people made and the call to action was to make it better.

But over the years I’ve come to realize that if you want people to make better stuff, you need to have more diverse people making stuff. You need to have more diverse people studying STEM disciplines at university and participating and leading in the STEM workforce.

The problem is, most of our tech programs attract white boys and men. It’s hard to know why. Is it because white boys and men have more confidence and thus enroll in these programs? Or is it because these programs are written with language and filled with signals that tell them “You belong here.”

So what do we do about it? How do we encourage more women and people of color to shape the present and future course of technology, to make better stuff?

The answer is complex. We need to teach women and people of color how to navigate the status quo while at the same time, teach them to identify and leverage the qualities that make them unique. We don’t want and need more diversity in STEM programs for the statistics of it alone. We want more diversity in STEM programs because we want more diversity, more creativity, more creative tension, more skill in working through creative tension. Because if we do it right, on the other side of that tension, we’ll have a diverse group of inventors challenging the status quo and making better stuff.

Bridging the Gap between Play and Work

In progressive education and even in business management, there’s a good amount of talk about the value of play. Let your people play and they will magically become out of the box thinkers. However, if you don’t help your people connect the dots between what they learned during playtime with the processes they use for real work, then the value of play is lost.

If you want your students to use a new process on a project, teach them how to play and iterate with the process on a project that is light and low-risk. Choose a theme that is fun and one that everyone can relate to. If you want them to learn about business models, ask them to generate 50 different models on the theme of food service. Then reflect on the agility they tapped into during playtime and ask them to draw on that same agility for a real project. When they get stuck on their real project because it’s riskier and scarier, coach them to call up the playful experience to help them push through.

If you want them to learn color theory, have them explore color combinations with a poster project about baby animals. Yes, baby animals. They are so cute and fun and they loosen people up. After playtime, reflect on how they explored color. Then ask them to use what they learned and apply it to a real project, something that they care about. When they get stuck, ask them to conjure up the spirit of play that they tapped into when they were working with baby animals. If you do that, you will help your people carve neural pathways from the play and creativity they used in the low-risk project to the creativity they need to tap into for the real project.

If you want your people to play, you need to help them connect the dots.

Bridging the Gap between STEM and the Humanities

We have a lot of creative educators out there who are trying to create and teach curricula that bridges the gap between STEM and The Humanities. Why is this an important thing to do? Because the critical thinking skills that we learn in the humanities will help technologists of the future create and scale meaningful solutions to complex problems.

The barrier that these educators face in this important work is that they are still bound to a siloed evaluation system. This system limits their creativity and ultimately, their effectiveness in bridging this gap.

Why is evaluating integrative student work so challenging? Perhaps it’s because educators and administrators might have to evaluate students on something that they themselves don’t have expertise in: true interdisciplinary work.

But if we are to ask our students to do something new in order to build a better future, than we educators and evaluators need to be generous in figuring out the evaluation side of the equation. Maybe evaluation needs to be done collaboratively with stakeholders who have cognitive diversity, who together can discuss how they appreciate the ways in which their students are practicing interdisciplinarity as well as identify and troubleshoot the places in which their students struggle.

Change of this magnitude requires that the leaders and evaluators of it be vulnerable. They are trying to teach and evaluate students on something that they themselves aren’t an expert in. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. But it’s what’s required.





Artists and Art Machines

note the Campbell’s soup can that this artist brought to the table. HT AW

I hosted a “tiny robot” build at an art opening last night. This was a first for me and I have to say, it was a good pairing – the art opening and the build. Artists are makers and so they participated fully and iterated with enthusiasm. I had a blast working with them.

Times like this I wish I had a voice-activated camera mounted to my head because the image above was the only picture I was able to snap. Right at the end of the night. Good picture though. Happy family!

There was another moment in the evening when a young mom with a baby on her hip saw our build and said to her friend, “Here, take this,” handing the baby over, “I want to make one of these.” And when she finished, she ran over to her friend and baby, held up her tiny robot and exclaimed, “Look what I made!”

Additionally, I had several artists chat with me about adding motors to their work. One had a motorized piece in the show – a first for her and it looked great. And another artist said to me proudly, “I just got my first Arduino in the mail today. I want to make my work more interactive.” Both of these artists were in their sixties, by the way. Lifelong learners!



If you are in the area, check out the Cayuga Arts Collective spring show. I had a chance to walk around the room before the doors opened. Beautiful work. Affordable, too.

Managing Fear

If you are an artist or inventor, managing fear is part of your daily routine. When your job is to create something out of nothing or explore unknown territory, fear has to be a part of that.

Fear shows up in many forms. Its goal is to keep you from doing the work that you are supposed to be doing. World-changing work. Fear doesn’t want you to change anything. It’s busy trying to maintain the status quo. So your first task is to recognize it in its many forms:

  • Self-deprecation. That voice that tells you that you aren’t good enough to pursue your dreams? That’s fear telling you that. It’s trying to scare you into inaction. And it’s really good at doing that.
  • Worrying. That habit you have of worrying about things so much that they paralyze you? That’s fear. Again, trying hard to scare you into inaction.
  • Resentment. The stories you tell yourself about how other people are ruining your life by the demands that they put on your time. That’s a form of fear.
  • Busy Work. If you find yourself spending most of your energy on tasks and putting little to no energy into higher level discussions or projects, that’s fear.
  • Advice. If you find yourself giving advice to a lot of people, that’s a symptom of fear. Fear to face your own life. So much easier to focus on others.
  • Oo. Shiny. If you are constantly taking on new projects, that’s fear. Fear of finishing something because if you finish it, it might fail. Better to never finish it at all.

So what do we do about it?

  • Learn to recognize it. Even if changing your behavior feels impossible, just recognizing symptoms of fear is incredibly valuable. It puts you, and not your fear, in the driver’s seat even if you just sit there for a while listening to the radio and not going anywhere.
  • Commit to changing your habits. Succumbing to fear is a habit. We perfect this habit over the course of a lifetime. Changing it is hard and you will stumble, perhaps for the rest of your life. But committing to change isn’t too hard. Just say yes and when you stumble, say yes again.
  • Distinguish what you can and can’t control. Then take those things that you can’t control off of your plate. Yes, bad thoughts about them will creep up, perhaps even daily. But if you have identified and named the worries that you can’t do anything about, you will spend less energy worrying about them.

If artists and inventors talked more openly about fear and how they manage it, perhaps more people would be able to see themselves as artists and inventors. They wouldn’t be scared off by the illusion that artists and inventors are confident uber humans. The truth is, artists and inventors are filled with fear just as much as the rest of us. The only difference is that they have accepted that managing fear is a part of their work.



In this twitter thread, @suhail calls on CEOs to talk more openly about fear