Christina Ernst has racked up more than 1.5 million likes across TikTok and Instagram for her “Medusa Dress” — a black gown that features three gold, writhing snakes and a fourth wrapped around her neck that follows people as they walk by. 

Don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone if you look at it. But you will see some engineering and math principles on display at the intersection of fashion and technology.

@shebuildsrobots Medusa dress is done!! #coding #programming #robotics #etextiles #arduino #3dprinting #reputation #reptv ♬ original sound - She Builds Robots

While studying at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ernst was torn between majoring in computer engineering and fashion design. She chose the former, and would go on to become a software engineer at Google. But her passion for fashion didn’t go away. After work, she puts on her sartorial hat and brings crafting into her engineering projects.

“Storytelling as part of art is what sends a project over the edge and makes it really engaging,” Ernst says. 

The internet couldn’t agree more. Users have left comments on her videos like “This is what I want to see at the Met Gala” and “Love the intersection of fashion, tech, and engineering!”

“I think part of the reason people are so excited is because it feels so accessible,” Ernst says. “It's not an overproduced video coming out of a fashion house.”

@shebuildsrobots Medusa snake dress part 4! #engineering #fashion #3dprinting #arduino ♬ original sound - She Builds Robots

Ernst thought of the idea for the Medusa dress years ago, but sat down this past January to start the project in earnest. 

In the beginning, she worked with nothing more than sketches, fishing wire and paper cutouts. The first prototype was made of cardboard and bent paper clips.

Ernst documented the process on her social media channels. (@SheBuildsRobots on TikTok and Instagram.)

“I want this media that I put out, this content that I put out, to be a beacon of experimentation and education and accessibility for folks who don't feel represented in STEM,” Ernst says.

Adobe Unveils Dynamic, Pattern-Changing Dress
The research scientist behind the dress calls it a “canvas for creativity.”

Various math and engineering principles went into the project, including 3D modeling, 3D printing, coding and the use of microcontrollers (a subset of hobby electronics). Ernst emphasizes that those STEM principles came together in “a very hobbyist, amateur way.”

“A lot of this is self-taught,” she says.  

Ernst used Tinkercad, a software used to create 3D, digital designs, because of its low barrier to entry. The same software is used in elementary schools, she says. 

“One of my philosophies is that 3D printing, if that is something you choose to do, should be the absolute last step in the process,” Ernst says. “You don't want to waste materials.”

Ernst used 3D-printed filament to create the final snakes, but also polymer clay, cardboard paper-towel tubes and wooden dowels. 

The snake bodies move with a rotating motor. But how does a snake made from common household items track and follow faces? With a $10 embedded chip from the hobby electronics market. 

The chip uses facial detection and sends out information about the likelihood that a face is at a certain X, Y coordinate. Then, it’s up to the coder to take that data and make it do something. For Ernst, that meant making the motors in the snake move to match the coordinates of where the face was detected. 

The chip detects a face. Coordinates are created. The motor moves. And now the snake head is looking at you. 

“A lot of these projects don't come from any special place of genius or a skill level. It's really more of a perseverance game,” Ernst says. 

If you want to try your hand at an engineering project, take a lesson from Ernst: Front-load as much as you can to create movement with as few motors as possible. Sketch as many different angles as you can. Make those engineering trade-offs as early as possible. 

Says Ernst: “I don't think there's anything here that a lay person could not do with just a couple weeks, a couple months of somebody to guide them. All of this tech is very accessible.”

Guiding people in STEM principles is exactly what Ernst does with She Builds Robots — her collection of free how-to guides for circuit and coding projects specifically made for girls in middle school and above.

The site has step-by-step articles on how to build things like a color-changing skirt and tea-brewing robot.

Ernst came up with the idea for She Builds Robots after a college hackathon (a competition where engineers get together and work on a passion project). For Ernst, that project was a color-changing, Bluetooth-controlled dress. 

She was struck by how many girls came to her booth and asked her to teach them how to code. 

“That was kind of this light bulb moment for me — that arts and crafts, but fashion specifically, could be a really great gateway for girls in particular to kind of get into these STEM hobbies,” Ernst says. 

That’s not all. Ernst will be the Chicago Public Library’s maker-in-residence this fall. As part of the three-month residency, she’ll teach classes and create a final art piece for the library. 

“I'm looking to make something inspired by one of the Chicago World's Fairs,” she says.

As for the Medusa dress, Ernst is considering stripping it for parts or making a second version. Who knows, maybe it will be seen on the Met Gala red carpet next May.  

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