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Girls and Robotics

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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Editor's Note: In this blog sponsored by Lego, author Mary Beth Hertz mentions her use of the Lego Mindstorm product. Hertz did not know Lego was sponsoring her blog and Lego made no request for product mentions. To best serve our audience, Edutopia is leaving the reference intact, as it reflects the facts of the author's experience and not any commercial arrangement between Lego and Edutopia.

Right now in education, it seems like everyone is talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Once again, our government has had a knee-jerk reaction to the success that other countries are having on international science and math tests. For many robotics coaches, this is all a bit "ho-hum." For decades, teams of students have been applying their knowledge of math, physics, electronics and computers to build machines that complete specific tasks and challenges. These teams have been working hand in hand with professional engineers as well as their teacher-coach, and they have been turning these experiences into internships at big-name companies and eventually into full-time careers.

I attended a FIRST Robotics League competition here in Philadelphia last year to see the teams compete and get a backstage look at the world of robotics. My friend Dave Zirkle and his team were participating in the competition. I stood by watching the team make some final tests and discussing strategy while they waited their turn to compete. There was one glaring element lacking at what was an action-packed and fascinating afternoon: girls. Aside from the one all-girl robotics team I saw, very few girls were present.

A Robotics Club is Born

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to teach a summer course on robotics using LEGO Mindstorms robotics kits. I had never taught robotics before, and for the most part I was learning with the kids, but I fell in love with this particular STEM practice. The hands-on experience of building, the time put into troubleshooting a program, the excitement when the robot you built completes a challenge -- it was hours of fun. When I returned to my school in the fall, I knew I wanted to run a robotics club. I knew I wanted it to be only for girls. I knew it would cost a lot of money. However, after some fundraising, I was able to purchase two LEGO Mindstorms starter kits. I had four girls building, testing, troubleshooting and programming. Sometimes we had to review math concepts when deciding how many rotations our robot's wheels needed to make. Sometimes we needed to explore value ranges for our sensors and actually apply the concepts of greater than and less than, seeing our results in the actions our robot took (or didn't).

I took some of my girls to the robot expo so they could see the next level of robotics, should they want to continue in high school. They had a blast.

One interesting fact I learned from talking to students at the competition is that robotics team members have lots of different roles. Just like any team, each person brings a different expertise to the table. Some of the girls were builders and programmers, but some did more work in marketing and planning the team's fundraising strategy or in project management. These teams are part of a national competition, and there are strict deadlines.

What I found to be the most amazing about the conversations I had with students was that many of them were already working at engineering firms and companies (usually the one that sponsored their team) or, if they were high school seniors, the company was helping pay some of their college tuition with the promise of a job when they graduated.

Crossing the Gender Barrier

With such a small population of girls present at the competition, I wonder how many young ladies are missing out on these opportunities? We need to make robotics and other viable career pathways appealing to young women and girls. One way is by exposing girls to more opportunities for building, making and doing in the classroom. This kind of stuff is not just for boys! Girls enjoy soldering just as much as boys do. We can also show girls who are not really into the "techie" side of things that a career in a technology-related field can translate into project-management, branding and marketing.

What better way to engage girls in both sides of the tech world and provide pathways to successful careers than through robotics?

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Robotics in the Classroom

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Randy Rodgers's picture
Randy Rodgers
Director of Digital Learning Services, Seguin (TX) ISD

Hi, MB,

Good post-SO much truth here! As I may have shared with you when we caught up at ISTE, I started an after-school technology program this year to let kids explore robotics, electronics, programming, etc.. We had 18 eager participants, exactly ONE of which was a wonderful, extremely bright sixth grade girl. I was surprised and disappointed. Similarly,roughly 60-65 of our 80 summer technology camp participants were boys. The girls that did attend did some of the most amazing and innovative work. As this year gets underway, I am making a point of putting extra attention towards getting our girls involved. I'm not sure what the root causes of this lack of participation are, but they are almost certainly grounded in old gender stereotypes that need to be broken. I hope some readers chime in with their own successful strategies for increasing participation by girls. I'd like to read their suggestions.


Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

As the mom of a girl who would both rock at this and who will never in a million years participate, I think I can speak to at least our experience (though I would never assume to speak for all the girls out there). So much of what she chooses to do is driven by relationships and early introduction. Her brother has ALL the Legos, (No joke- my basement looks like a Lego store, except not as cool or organized) but he was also fiercely protective of them and of his creations. In spite of all our efforts, she determined that this kind of building was for Boys Only. It was only when she tied her love of art to the Legos- when they became another medium like pastels and paints and clay- that she was willing to build herself.

None of her friends build, however. She's very aware of that and, being the social creature that she is, she chooses to do different things when she's with them.

So I guess my advice would be: 1. Start thinking of STEM in terms of STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) and 2. Make the raw materials for robotics available to girls from an early age, and help them see the ways in which those materials intersect with their own innate interests.

Great piece!

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Definitely, Laura. It's important to expose girls at an early age and to help them see that you don't have to be a programmer to love robotics or other 'techie" endeavors.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

It definitely takes a certain kind of girl to be OK with being the "only one." But it shouldn't have to be that way. One suggestion I have (you may have already done this) is to have the girls that have been successful recruit their friends. They may also have ideas for what would get more girls on board. You might also want to try some fun, crafty maker-style projects like squishy circuits or making jewelry with conductive thread (very stereotypical, I know) and try to get some girls hooked on building and making with tech.

krzkwi's picture

I've been full time father for last 6 yrs, homeschooler for last 2 and my great interest is early education (early means from conception). I offered the head of the school my son is registered to (in my country you have to register children to a school when you home educate them) I can run a course for 5-10yr old kids about robotics, plastic models, building, creativity etc. She had immediately 2 questions: Will there be lego mindstorms and ... will there be anything for girls. Actually she said "ok, I agree, but there Must be something for girls". We will start beginning 2014. Your ideas are very useful. Thanks. I'll let you know what happens.

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Sounds great! I do wonder what the head of school considers "something for girls." Good luck with everything. If you're looking for ideas on building, creating and making, you can also check out the awesome book "Invent to Learn" by Gary Stager & Sylvia Martinez. Lots of great ideas in there. Best of luck!

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