Girl Powered Robotics Competition
Last weekend my daughter and I attended an all girl robotics competition for middle schoolers. It was fun and enlightening to be a mentor/coach to four girls who, though they had limited or no experience in engineering and robotics, enthusiastically formed a team with the youthful expectation of a fun time. Luckily, parents did not need to have experience, because, though I have worked with technology for many years, I have never built a robot. The event was both well organized and inspiring with its message of inclusiveness and perseverance. This program was part of a larger effort by companies and organizations like Google, Vex Robotics, the Girl Scouts, The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation, and the Girl Powered Initiative to encourage girls to develop interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The motivation for this and other similar efforts is the well recognized fact that, in the United States and other parts of the world, women are underrepresented in STEM fields, especially Engineering (Computer, Electrical, and Mechanical).
According to a 2016 NSF study, there are large differences in the number of women vs. the number of men majoring in college STEM programs such as Computer Science (17.9% women) and Engineering (19.3% women). The workforce numbers are even more abysmal with just 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware/software engineers being women; and 7.9% of mechanical engineers being women. According to the Girl Powered site, across all STEM fields, the proportion women in the technical workforce only rises to 24%. For VEX Robotics competitions, girl participation is only 23%. There are lots more numbers and data out there and the conclusion is obvious: There are far fewer women than men going into technical fields, like Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Machine Learning, fields that are the drivers of the 21st Century economy for industrialized nations, and areas where industry leaders regularly complain they can’t find enough skilled workers. These numbers are for the United States, though there are parallels in Europe and other North American countries. Women in some East Asian countries appear to fare better, but often not by much.
It is clear that we need to do more to encourage women to enter these fields, so that we can remain competitive, so we can eliminate an embarrassing discriminatory aspect of western democratic culture, and in order to stop wasting valuable human talent. But what can we do besides say that we will “encourage” women and girls to consider science and engineering careers? That meager level of commitment leaves it entirely up to time strapped teachers who (in the public schools) are under increased pressure to appear unbiased and apolitical. Simply acknowledging the problem is not enough. Parents, industry partners, and extracurricular organizations need to step up and offer programs that introduce girls to STEM and foster interest and perseverance from a young age. It is also seems that many people leading the charge believe that it helps to initiate girls to STEM in environments where they get some personalized attention and messaging meant to encourage them to take an interest in STEM related activities. As a result there are events and out of school activities that, like the event my daughter and I attended, are all girl. For instance, there are all girl robotics teams sponsored by Girl Scouts of America.
Enter the Girl Powered Initiative, a group that sponsors and arranges STEM events (many times robotics, but also other science and technology topics) that introduce girls to technical fields. This past weekend event, held at Google, was the largest all girl robotics focused event sponsored by Girl Powered and REC so far. A whopping 550 middle school girls spent two days (8-10 hours a day) building robots, programming controllers, and competing against each other in a formalized setting! Also, there were over 200 volunteers and mentors there to provide advice and encouragement. And there was more! There were several 60 to 90 minute workshops (many led by female technologists) on things like machine learning and Internet of Things technologies, all designed to expose the girls to both technology and the message that girls can and should engage in these highly technical and cutting edge activities. Finally, there were speakers, many of whom were women technologists and activists who make it their personal mission to encourage more women to pursue careers in technology. These speakers hammered home the message that girls can and should focus on STEM activities, classes, and careers. They offered inspiring words and encouragement along with personal stories of striving and thriving as women in STEM fields. With all this positive messaging and hands on technology, I hope that for those 550 girls the needle has moved a little towards interest in STEM and even insistence that they can and will “do tech.”
The event was fun for parents because we got a chance to spend time learning about robotic technology alongside our girls and were able to watch them struggle and eventually succeed at something new, challenging, and which society often tells them they can’t do. What is more, the girls were excited and passionate about their robots and the competition. The entire weekend was filled with inspiring energy and enthusiasm. The girls competed just as fiercely as I’ve seen boys go at it in their activities (technical and nontechnical.) In this environment with positive messaging, the girls thrived and (at least the case of my team of girls) even schooled the technically inclined parents in a few of the engineering details.
At the end of the weekend, all the girls I worked with were fired up about robotics and technology. In my book this is a huge step in the right direction and the event organizers are to be commended for doing such an incredible job. After the final robotics competition that weekend, the girls who participated were all given a Google Home Mini as a reward for their hard work and perseverance in a fun and challenging event. But, to my way of thinking, the 550 girls won something much more valuable than a fun weekend and a cute gadget. I think they each walked out to the parking lot on Sunday evening with a strong sense that technology is challenging and rewarding and that they can devote their education and careers to it and contribute equally along side men. I hope they also walked away with a little bit of attitude, one that will encourage them stand tall and talk about their experience and accomplishments the next time someone even implies that they can’t do as well as a boy in Science and Technology. Better yet, I hope that any implication that women and girls can't do tech as well as men and boys fires them up to "prove 'em wrong."
As a final note, though this was a huge event and an enormous success, there is much that each of us can do on a smaller scale that is just as impactful. The Girl Powered workshops page (https://www.girlpowered.com/workshops/) provides all the support that teachers, parents, coaches, companies, and other local organizations need to organize their own Girl Powered workshop to introduce girls to STEM and inspire them to give it a try. The Girl Powered organization provides ideas and support materials so your event can be a success no matter how small or large. There is even a grants section on the site, should you decide to start a Vex Robotics team that has girl participation of 50% or greater. Finally, at https://www.girlpowered.com/pledge/ anyone can take an online pledge to: Give all students equal opportunities on your team, support and encourage all students to try out different roles to push their comfort levels, outreach to an array of students to establish a diverse team culture, advocate for this initiative by supporting, communicating & spreading the message to others. By taking this pledge you will be promising to contribute to a future where there are just as many women as men in STEM related fields and everyone is treated with respect and rewarded fairly as a valued member of their team, company, and greater community.