Chartiers Valley Students Explore the Future of Fashion with E-Textiles Project

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Paula Scharding

Paula Scharding has always had a passion for fashion.  Fueled by this interest, along with a stark realization that the curriculum in her Family and Consumer Sciences classroom could benefit from an update, Scharding committed herself during the 2015-16 school year to designing and implementing a truly interdisciplinary unit that provided the students of Chartiers Valley Middle School a unique opportunity to integrate skills in circuitry, computer programming, and fashion design.  Scharding’s e-textile unit was one of 29 projects awarded a STEAM Grant in 2015 by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

An educator of nearly 20 years, Scharding has worked most of her career at the Middle School in Chartiers Valley School District, a suburban district outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that serves the boroughs of Bridgeville, Heidelberg, and Collier and Scott Townships.  During the tenure of her teaching, Scharding admits that the curriculum has changed little.  Students are required to take 5-week blocks of Family and Consumer Sciences each year, starting with foundational sewing skills in 6th grade and culminating with the making of a pair of shorts in 8th.  “Who makes their own clothes these days, though?” Scharding asks, and it was this realization that motivated her to update the 8th grade curriculum to integrate technology through conductive sewing.

Scharding states that the idea came from a free professional development course she attended at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s transformED called “Bring it and Bling it.”  In the session, she explored alongside teachers from around the region the fundamentals of sewing with conductive thread, which although looks and feels like typical sewing thread, is coated in silver, making it conductive.  In the same way wires carry current, the thread can be used to create flexible circuits that require no soldering.  Her interest piqued, Scharding left the professional development and researched further, contemplating the best way to introduce e-textiles to her students.

The impetus to redesign the curriculum arrived in her email inbox one morning, she explains, when the district’s superintendent, Dr. Brian White, encouraged teachers to submit applications for the STEAM Grants, which are awarded yearly to schools throughout the region to support STEAM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) learning.  Scharding admits that as an older teacher, submitting the grant proposal felt risky, but with the support of the school’s then principal, Dr. John Ackermann, she persisted, titling the proposal “Sew Electrifying.”  “What I so appreciated about the ‘Sew Electrifying’ grant idea is that Mrs. Scharding demonstrates what we all believe about STEAM,” recalls Rosanne Javorsky, the Assistant Executive Director for Teaching and Learning at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.  “It is relevant for every course and every class. She clearly demonstrated how STEAM learning, via e-textiles and conductive sewing, embraces the instructional integration of STEAM learning. Her project was awesome!”

What I so appreciated about the ‘Sew Electrifying’ grant idea is that Mrs. Scharding demonstrates what we all believe about STEAM. It is relevant for every course and every class.

Rosanne Javorsky, Allegheny Intermediate Unit

Fashion + Tech

The integration of fashion and technology has seen a noticeable spike in popularity this past year.  #techstyle an exhibition that recently concluded at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts explored “how the synergy between fashion and technology is not only changing the way designers design, but also the way people interact with their clothing.”  Amanda Cosco, a writer for wareable.com, described the exhibition as a “glimpse into the future of wearable technology beyond the wrist, including dresses that move with a mind of their own, clothing that reacts to noise and music and garments that come out of a 3-D printer ready to wear.”  Included in the exhibit was a set of sound-reactive outfits by Ying Gao, in which a speaker’s voice could activate movement in the thousands of sewing pins adorned to the garments, and a “Twitter dress” made from fabric embedded with 11,000 micro-LEDs that came to life displaying Tweets that were typed into an accompanying iPad.

Several months prior to the opening of #techstyle, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced their annual Gala theme as “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.”  The Gala, held on the first Monday in May and regarded as one of the most exclusive social events in New York City, attracted some 600 high-profile figures, including Beyonce, Nicole Kidman, and Katy Perry.

Notable outfits included a dress worn by Claire Danes, seen at right, which according to Paul Chi of Vanity Fair, boasted “enough LED work to warrant another Tron reboot,” and a frock worn by model Karolina Kurkova.  The designers of the latter, Georgina Chapman and Karen Craig, collaborated with IBM’s Watson to create a “compassionate dress,” that according to Chi, “analyzed Tweets and the emotions of fans interacting on social media.”  Each of the LED lights embedded into the dress changed colors depending on the moods of the fans.

“If museums provide a curated look into culture,” Cisco states, “it’s clear there’s enough happening at the intersection of fashion and technology to warrant whole exhibitions.”  She asserts, “while clothing has always signalled mood, style and class, the next generation of technical textiles will allow us to express ourselves in ways never before imagined.”

Starry night! #Zacposen #metgala #glamour @metmuseum @voguemagazine @instagram

A video posted by @zacposen on

E-Textiles at Chartiers Valley

During the planning stages, a challenge that Scharding faced was how to integrate conductive sewing in a meaningful way in the short period of time she had with students, a mere 25-day block.  “I pride myself when students get into sewing,” Scharding states. “It helps when a student comes out with a project that they really care about.”  She decided on dividing the unit into three modules, each building off the previous and growing in complexity, leading to the final project, an interactive felt monster that combined circuitry and computer programming with sewing and design.

In the first module, students were introduced to the basics of circuitry with littleBits, an open source library of modular electronics that snap together using magnets.  They integrated this knowledge with lessons on hand sewing to design and create a cloth bookmark complete with a basic circuit.  This required students to debug issues they encountered along the way, such as ensuring their threads didn’t cross—which causes a short—and correcting loose connections.

With their first basic circuit complete, students moved on to creating an electronic wearable.  In early iterations of this module, students fabricated wristbands; however, later in the year, Scharding switched to neckties, as the precision needed for the former created an array of challenges.  For both the wristbands and neckties, students sewed LEDs to the wearable, which then were connected with conductive thread to a small computer chip called a LilyTiny.  This chip was programmed to create customized light patterns in the LEDs, from twinkling and fading to blinking and thumping.  Each circuit was powered by a coin cell battery, its placement a major consideration for students during the design process.

The culmination of the unit was a complex group project, in which students used a computer programming language to control LED lights and speakers that they attached to hand-sewn felt monsters.  To interface their e-textiles with the computer, students had to learn to use the Arduino, a micro controller board with digital input and output pins.  In order to complete the project in the allotted time, it was essential for students to work collaboratively, with those students focused on the front end sewing constantly communicating with those working on the back end coding.  The result was a truly interdisciplinary product, with students learning not only fundamental sewing but a plethora of other valuable 21st century skills.

To showcase students’ hard work, Scharding hosted a “Black Tie Event” at the end of the school year, attended by her eighth grade students along with the district’s superintendent, assistant superintendent, and district principals.  At the event, students snacked on hors d’oeuvres while dressed in their wristbands and ties, each uniquely decorated.  Students then had the opportunity to teach the adults about the process for designing and fabricating their wearables.  Seeing the role of student shift, Scharding states, was especially memorable.  Chartiers Valley superintendent recalls the unique nature of the project, stating “[Scharding’s] project was a great opportunity to make the learning exciting and engaging for middle school students.”

Scharding, along with students from Chartiers Valley, will join the other 2015 STEAM Grant recipients at this year’s STEAM Showcase, which will be held September 27, 2016 at The Circuit Center and Ballroom in Pittsburgh’s South Side.  The Showcase will bring together past STEAM Grant recipients with those awarded grants for the upcoming year, along with organizations promoting STEAM learning in the region.  The Showcase is open to the public.

The STEAM Grants are awarded annually by the Center for Creativity at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and are generously funded by Chevron and the Benedum and Grable Foundations.  Now in its ninth consecutive year, nearly 175 grants have been distributed with over $3 million in funding provided to school districts throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

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