Ayah Bdeir: Moving from STEM to STEAM

MIT Media Lab alum and TED Senior Fellow Ayah Bdeir is considered one of the leaders of the Maker Movement. Bdeir received her masters of science degree from MIT and undergraduate degrees in computer engineering and sociology from the American University of Beirut. In 2010, Bdeir was granted a fellowship with Creative Commons for her work in open hardware. In 2011, Bdeir launched littleBits Electronics, a New York-based startup with the goal to “put the power of electronics in the hands of everyone, and to break down complex technologies so that anyone can build, prototype, and invent.”

Q: Did your education and experience at the MIT Media Lab help in building your own company?
AB: littleBits is very much a reaction to my own educational experience. I originally wanted to be an architect, but my parents and teachers said I owed it to myself to be an engineer because I was good at math and science. I did my undergrad in engineering but I found it dry and boring. Then after attending the MIT Media Lab for graduate school, I realized you could combine engineering with art and design and prototyping tools to create really amazing things. I created the prototypes for littleBits while I was making my own interactive art with electronics to help me iterate faster, and right away I started seeing interest from fellow designers. I realized that it could be a really powerful way to make electronics and complex technology fun and accessible to anyone—without needing an engineering degree.

Q: The early versions of littleBits were developed as part of a project to help industrial designers improve their prototyping process. How did they evolve into a STEM kit for kids?
AB: As I started demoing littleBits, kids, parents, and teachers showed enormous excitement and ideas to use littleBits in ways I had never anticipated. I realized there was an opportunity to change the way kids learn about technology and to change their relationship with technology from passive consumers to creative problem-solvers.

Q: A part of your mission is to get more girls into science and technology. Why do you think we need more girls in STEM?
AB: This is honestly a “hidden mission” for littleBits because we don’t offer kits targeted specifically at girls, but focus more on keeping our designs gender neutral. The drop-off in kids’ interest in STEM subjects begins in elementary school and hits girls especially hard, which is why we’re dedicated to successfully bridging the gender gap by inspiring young girls and boys to unleash their creativity and embrace STEAM through the invention cycle. Gender neutrality is a design principle we hold at the heart of our products: in how we showcase inventions, in our partnerships, and in our message.

Q: What’s been the biggest life lesson you have learned in your entrepreneurial journey so far?
AB: Success doesn’t happen overnight. Developing a new category, inventing something that never existed before, it takes real time. You will make progress and when you get close to something happening you will feel it and become so energized you won’t be able to stop. I’ve also realized that it’s important to keep inspiration close at hand. There are always going to be highs and lows, so you need to really celebrate the highs and create reminders of them, so that you can push through the lows.

Q: What’s your opinion on the intersection of engineering and design?
AB: After engineering school, I did my graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab, where I started developing my own artwork and interactive installations with electronics. It was so empowering to be able to express myself in light, sound, sensors, and spaces. More often than not, in developing a new product, the engineers have at it first, then the designers come in and the design process becomes about just beautifying. I felt like that was a very inorganic and inefficient process, and made for badly designed products. littleBits allowed designers to brainstorm using their regular materials in addition to the material of “interaction” and enabled the designers to iterate.  

Reprinted from Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Chitra Sethi is managing editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.