Big Ideas Behind Tiny Town

December 19, 2014

Local students lend STEM skills to create holiday cheer



It's always there. Dominating the Austin skyline across the holiday season, the giant illuminated Zilker Holiday Tree at the end of the Trail of Lights. But halfway around the trail, there it is again in miniature, at the heart of Tiny Town. Unlike its giant counterpart, this one changes color, with swirling light patterns.

In the long and often financially troubled history of the Trail, Tiny Town was often an overshadowed corner. A set of scale model houses and businesses, it had a hard time competing with the childhood tales and branded characters that fill the other areas. Amy Woolsey, part of the Free Your Mind innovation group within Tiny Town sponsorsFreescale, explained, "They were in different scales, because one got added one year, and another got added another, and they were gray. We decided to soup them all up." The team repainted and renovated, designing stained glass windows for the church, and a model railway, so this year it's the only display on the trail with a line. That's due to what Woolsey calls "command central for the technology side of Tiny Town."

Woolsey and her 20 volunteers – along with 50 Austin-area students – added a miniature drive-in theatre. Visitors press one of two buttons – naughty or nice – and a Christmas carol is played on the screen. Woolsey said, "The nice songs are in major keys, and the naughty songs are in minor keys. There were a whole group of people with a musical ear who caught that, and were just going ape."

It all seems like simple seasonal cheer, but there's actually some serious intent behind the project. Let the carols finish, and there are two brief documentaries about how the students were involved in engineering and constructing the structure, the wiring, and the programming that runs it all.

Austin-based chip manufacturer Free­scale is one of several major sponsors of this year's Trail, but the firm wanted to do more than just pay for some bulbs. That's why Woolsey and her group picked the unloved Tiny Town, and used students from AISD's Liberal Arts and Science Academy, and West­lake High School in Eanes, to help with construction. The group had previously worked with the Westlake students on robotics projects under Coach Norman Morgan. Woolsey said, "Coach said that this was such a good thing for the kids to do. They'd never had to do construction, and he's adding it to the curriculum next year."

Another key group involved was Girl­start, a local nonprofit that encourages young women to get interested in and excited by science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Girlstart Executive Director Tamara Hud­gins stressed the importance of such project-based opportunities, noting that "Amer­ica spends more on beer than STEM education."

Like many students involved in Tiny Town, the girls in Hudgins' program built fantastical vehicles for the drive-in. But they also generated the 32,000 lines of code that operate the tree's light patterns. Wool­sey said, "We created all the hardware, we used some freeware software, we loaded it up with the Tiny Town theme, and we showed it to Tamara. We trained her, and then she trained the kids, and then they gave it back to us." So every time the lights change in response to those buttons, it's the programming skills of the kids at Girlstart responsible.

That's important, because there are a disproportionately small number of girls taking STEM courses and qualifications. Hudgins said, "Around fourth grade, around 8 or 9 years old, girls lose interest. They lose confidence in participating in science activities, especially in a duel-gender group, and they begin to doubt whether a career in STEM is for them." It's a serious problem, one that leaves the few women who do become engineers feeling very out of place, and quitting the industry young. With those issues, "people expect us to be all scorched earth and negative," Hudgins said. Instead, they take the positive approach of project-based afterschool programs, and creative collaborations like Tiny Town, "that are designed to keep girls interested in STEM as an area of opportunity and excitement for them."

Woolsey presents this as a quantum shift from how purposefully off-putting STEM teaching could be. She said, "When I was growing up, it was all, you're an engineer or you're an artist. No, you can be both." When it comes to projects like this, she said, "Part of why this interests younger girls is that you see how things connect. It's not just, oh, this is technology, this is dull, this is math, I don't understand how this applies. You're applying it to something. That means, not only can I have pretty lights, but I can have pretty lights that do something, and I can make them do it."

The Trail of Lights runs until Dec. 21 at Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Rd. For more on Girlstart, visit