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Threading the Needle: Fostering Student Success Through Making

Fashionistas are always looking for a dress that makes their hearts beat faster. But what about a dress that shows everyone else your racing pulse? The NCSU Libraries Makerspace program helped graduating senior Jazsalyn McNeil fuse art and design within the emerging fields of wearable technologies and interactive electronic textiles with her Pulse Dress, creating new opportunities for textiles research, education, and outreach.

Sometimes an object explains a scientific concept better than words do. College of Textiles student Jazsalyn McNeil used her design skills and a flair for fashion to explain ideas like biometric sensing and nanomaterials to a general audience.

McNeil created the Pulse Dress, which incorporates LEDs that blink with the wearer’s heartbeat. Whether you’ve heard of a screen-printed pulse sensor or a microcontroller—a minimal computer on a single microchip—McNeil’s dress makes the relatively unknown field of electronic textiles self-evident.

Pulse was developed through NC State’s Nano-EXtended Textiles (NEXT) Research Group, a team of researchers focused on developing new processes and products for wearable electronics. Dr. Jesse Jur, NEXT’s principal investigator, was looking for ways for the public to engage with his group’s research. McNeil approached him with the idea of developing a garment to spark curiosity about textile sciences and make textile technologies and engineering exciting and approachable. It was a great match.

Dr. Jur invited McNeil to join NEXT as a “fusion designer,” a unique interdisciplinary role within the group tasked with integrating electronics, fashion, and design—all with an eye towards public communication and education. Inspired by NEXT’s printed biometric sensors, as well as her own studies of light-emitting animals and plants, McNeil set out to create a piece of clothing that “visually portrayed the evolving era of wearable technology and the mysterious evolution of bioluminescence.”

The "Pulse Dress"

McNeil had a clear idea of what she wanted to make, but her training in art and textile and fashion design had not included electrical engineering. So she turned to the Makerspace at D. H. Hill Library to learn how to work with electronics.

She gained basic maker skills in Makerspace workshops, and relied on support from student staff there to take her design ideas further. Soon, McNeil was embedding lights and sensors into fabric, soldering circuit boards, and fabricating custom 3D-printed enclosures for her projects.

McNeil describes the Makerspace as “a community that I could work and consult with to learn about the electrical aspects required to develop my project.” Through access to technologies, training, and expertise, the Makerspace helped McNeil bring her vision for Pulse to life.

The microcontroller behind the "Pulse Dress"

By providing the tools and supports to foster student success, Dr. Jur notes that the Libraries’ Makerspace program helps research faculty do more. “The Makespace at D. H. Hill Library enables groups like mine to really go beyond themselves,” he says. “It provides a number of resources that we go and leverage. They have experts there that allow us to understand how to do the programming, how to do the 3D printing. They know the tricks of the trade for making.”

Having now become a seasoned maker, McNeil is ready to pursue more projects that integrate science and engineering with fashion and design. On the heels of exhibiting Pulse at the Charleston Fashion Week’s 2016 Success Showcase, McNeil is working on projects for galleries and museums, as well as apparel companies across the country.