Hacker-in-Residence: Environment-responsive Electronics

Kathryn Shroyer is here to make some magic with responsive e-textiles!

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It seems like only yesterday we were high-fiving resident hacker Matthew Burmeister for joining us to work on his weather station, and now it’s new hacker time already! So let’s give the proverbial welcoming cake shaped like a basket of kittens to Kathryn Shroyer, who is joining us from Boston to work on responsive electronics!

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Hi Kathryn!

Kathryn’s favorite fictional character is Ms. Frizzle (heck yes, space dress) from The Magic School Bus series, and her favorite snacks are ricotta pie, kale chips and kettle corn. In other words she is the perfect person to bring along on a road trip, particularly if it’s in an enchanted mass transit situation.

Can you share your background, interests and some favorite past projects? What do you do now?

I grew up in Texas, but was whisked away to the Boston area for school. I completed my undergraduate education at MIT – B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a B.S. in Music (yes, MIT has music majors) – and for the past four years I’ve been designing and implementing engineering education programs at the MIT Sea Grant College Program.

Sea Grant is a national program that aims to promote the conservation and sustainable development of our marine resources through research, education and outreach. The MIT program tends to focus on Ocean Engineering (who’s surprised?). What does this mean for me? It means I get to build underwater vehicles with middle school students, high school students and teachers. Yay! More or less, I design, implement and evaluate a variety of ocean engineering and marine science programming focused on teaching open-ended problem solving to K-12 teachers and students.

What are my interests…. um, all of the things. My friends joke that my hobby is collecting other hobbies, because really my hobby is learning. Does learning count as a hobby? The primary things that seem to interest me are problem solving, design/construction, music, education (particularly learning by doing), and visual communication. When I find pretty or interesting things in the world I immediately want to learn to construct them myself, so I’m always designing and building new things, often with fabric – fabric seems to be my interesting material of choice.

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OEX program students display gestures of enthusiasm for the ocean

There are two projects of note that I think represent in general what I do. Ocean Engineering Experience (OEX). OEX was a residential summer program at MIT for 16 rising high school seniors and juniors. Students were introduced to engineering through a two-week, project-based design curriculum, where they designed and constructed a ROV (remote operated underwater vehicle) in teams of four to solve a marine science challenge for a client. The program is of particular interest to me as it takes a different approach than most summer programs. Rather than having a lecture/homework model similar to high school coursework, the course is project-based, and modeled to have students working in design teams like they might at an engineering company.

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A seriously impressive Audrey II puppet

Puppets. I became a member of music theater group as a pit musician (I play the oh so lovely but difficult French horn). Over time I have slowly been roped into design roles, like costume designer, and most recently designing and constructing puppets. Last summer the group took on Avenue Q and I adopted the new skill of hand puppet building. This past January I designed and constructed two man-eating plant puppets for Little Shop of Horrors.

How and why did you get involved in SparkFun’s hacker-in-residence program?

I was introduced to SparkFun through my current position. Many of your products are created for introducing students to electrical engineering and computer science. I’m frequently poking around the website for new products and noticed the hacker-in-residence program. I love the DIY/maker movement, and the empowerment that comes from sharing information, so I was excited by the opportunity to contribute a project that could serve as an education tutorial. I am always juggling many projects, so I felt this opportunity would be a great chance to get away and concentrate on one thing.

What is the project you’ll be working on at SparkFun, and why did you choose it?

I will be at SparkFun for two weeks working on e-textile synthetic flowers that will respond to their environment. Think “Martha Stewart found an Arduino and some cool electronics components to play with.” I’m sure the project will evolve over the course of my stay, but the current idea is fabric (or paper) flowers in vase that will bloom and light up in response to light and noise. My hope is that this can serve as an DIY introductory project for young women to begin exploring electronics.

I’m not sure exactly where the flowers came from, but in general I have strong interest in teaching and encouraging creativity by doing. I am mechanically inclined and love problem solving, but I design and learn through fabric and paper crafts, not the typical engineering topics like robotics. So in general I’m interested in designing projects that other people like me can use to explore electronics and hand-on learning.

Thanks Kathryn - we can’t wait to see the results!


Comments 4 comments

  • LC / last year / 2

    Animatronics and puppetry are so cool. I love all the intersections of education and techmology. Responsive electronics can cover a lot of ground. Kathryn is doing some really interesting stuff!

  • LOVE the Audrey II ! ! As for your project, good luck, cant wait to read how you did. Can I assume that you will be using muscle wire for the blooming efffect? Or something more….. elusive?

    BTW too bad this post got short changed, the great Trademark Incident of 2014 dwarfed your spotlight.

  • Hey, how about another idea to get women interested in electronics? Say a jacket rather than a puppet. The jacket can light up at night for safety, react to the environment (temp, humidity, air quality, noise, etc.), sniff out wi-fi spots, have a built in alarm system, or pair with a smart phone to provide real time updates? The advantage of a jacket is that since it will be worn out in the real world, it has the potential for a lot more people to be encouraged to start ‘making’… Just a thought….

  • Imagine a small plant that you make a base leaves, then cover with specific colors/alternate with an Arduino… with: https://www.sparkfun.com/products/12712 the fiber optic fabric..

    Then, accent with: https://www.sparkfun.com/products/11756 …And somehow build in touch sensing into the leaves so that it reacts to your touch as your brush it…