Geeking Out at SXSW: Day Two

Legos, astronauts, and STEM round out the second day of South by Southwest

March 15, 2015

Creative building was the theme for day two at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

My morning started with Legos.

After my revised Saturday plan to go to an informal librarian breakfast meet-up was derailed, I found myself in the Austin Convention Center, standing in a common area in front of a tray full of Legos. What a wonderful way to jumpstart your day (and brain) with a little free-building.

Little did I know that it would, in some way, set the tone for my day.

Mae Jemison, the nation’s first African-American astronaut—an ASTRONAUT, people!—hosted a panel on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) diversity this morning, with Lindsey Shepard, vice president of sales and marketing for GoldieBlox; Kimberly Bryant founder of Black Girls Code; and Ran Libeskind-Hadas, computer science chair at Harvey Mudd  College in Claremont, California.

A young girl playing with a Little Bits electronics kit at SX Create.
A young girl playing with a Little Bits electronics kit at SX Create.

Remarkably, after Harvey Mudd College established a program, in 2006, to encourage more women in computer science, the school increased the percentage of female computer science majors—from 10% to 40%.

It’d be an understatement to say I was geeked out.  If you haven’t heard or GoldieBlox, get thee to an overview video now. I’d heard of the amazing work of Black Girls Code, and also of astronaut Mae Jemison—she’s a rock star, in one of the most wonderfully geeky ways possible.

Only 14% of engineers are women, said Jemison, partly because girls start to lose confidence in math and science at age 8. And whether that’s getting young girls to program little robots or to play with building toys that help them share their stories, or exposing young women to computer science as college freshmen, these panelists are working to build our young women up and arm them for the technical fields.

“Lack of confidence [in women] is not something that is automatically there,” said Jemison.

I was fired up. Fired up, I tell you! And later that day, as I entered the SX Create space—a public exhibition of experimental and emerging technologies, swarming with children on a beautiful Saturday—what was the first thing I saw?

A Girl Start representative shows off the robot arms of paper and string used for building.
A Girlstart representative shows off the “robot arms” of paper and string used for building.

A little black girl playing with a Little Bits electronics kit. Swarming in this space were children playing with and exploring electronics kits, making paper “robot arms” to understand the mechanics of an arm’s motions, and stop-motion animation, among much, much more.

I’d been feeling a little weary and overloaded, but that experience made me full of hope.

The only plans I made for today involved events that explicitly mentioned libraries. I ended up going to none of them. (See SX rule number 2.) But the adventure I went on today had as much relevance to libraries and their role in the tech landscape than my initial plans.

We’ve heard ad nauseam about the concept of the library as a place, as its value as a “third place,” but there is true value in what has become an overused concept and phrase. Our libraries are the community’s third place, not only to gather but to learn and play. And that play—whether it’s Lego Club or an intro to Raspberry Pi (sorry, had to give my library a little shout-out)—can have lasting effects, such as in a young woman’s confidence in her math and science skills.

“People know their daughters are more than just princesses,” said Shepard during the morning’s panel, “but they should be able to build their own castle.”

And libraries can supply the tools to start.


SXSW: Day One

Annual Austin, Texas, event offers an opportunity to create new advocates for libraries

The author and a squirrel take a break from South by Southwest.

Libraries, Robots, and Squirrels … Oh My! Day Three at SXSW

A day of technology and ideas at South by Southwest