Robotics Can Get Girls Into STEM, but Some Still Need Convincing

August 16, 2016
John Quinn

When her high school in Grosse Ile, Michigan, started a co-ed robotics team dubbed The Wired Devils, Maya Pandya thought she’d give it a try. The 17-year-old already excelled in math and science, and had considered going into engineering as a career. But while the team was part of a larger initiative meant to “inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology,” her first interactions with other team members left her frustrated.

“When I first walked in, the guys on the team acted like I didn’t really want to do engineering,” says Maya, who will be a senior next year. “It felt like they assumed things automatically. Once I pushed people out of that mindset, they accepted me and started listening to my ideas.”

It wasn’t until the last few weeks of the team’s 6-week build session, when students came together to construct a robot for an upcoming competition, that things seemed to click. Maya recalls working on her team’s robot one day, and realized that hours had passed. “I was enjoying it so much that time just flew by,” she says. “It was that moment that I realized I could actually go into robotics.”

Maya is part of a growing number of girls who are trying out robotics—through school clubs or regional organizations, and in co-ed or all girls teams—and finding out that they have a knack for it. FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science & Technology), the nonprofit that helped spark the girls-in-robotics moment and is behind The Wired Devils, now boasts more than 3,100 teams nationwide and over 78,000 student-aged participants.

Robotics advocates say these programs provide a way for school-age girls to get exposure to the field while also discovering their passion for STEM-based careers—a priority that’s been on the national agenda for the past several years, in part thanks to President Obama’s push for increased participation by women and minorities in STEM careers.

“There’s a push overall for kids to be into robotics because, from a talent pool standpoint, the U.S. isn’t putting out enough people to stay ahead in math, science, or any of the STEM fields,” says Jenny Young, founder of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, a robot-based after-school program that strives “to empower kids through building.” “Girls are half the population, and there really isn’t any reason why girls shouldn’t see how fun and exciting and rewarding engineering can be.”

Others say the rise of girls in robotics reflects a natural transition as the gender divide begins to narrow. “I have seen a shift in society over the last year of basically ‘girl power’ and the removal of gender barriers,” says Sarah Brooks, program manager for the National Robotics League, a student robot-building program run by the National Tooling & Machining Association. “It has allowed more girls to feel confident in these types of roles—and it has allowed the boys to be confident that the girls are there.”

To read the rest of this article, published in The Smithsonian, please click here.

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