We had our first robotics competition of the season on Saturday. I definitely felt better about it than last year, but still noticed a distinct lack of girls there. I’d say there were 10 out of maybe 300 or so people. I’m not counting the moms. When I got home, I asked Mr. Geeky if the gender balance got better in college (he does a robosoccer competition with humanoid robots and a robot blimp competition). He said, no, that actually he often brought the only girls.
I ruminated on this last year, and pondered whether this was the best way to get girls involved in CS. Maybe, maybe not, but there’s also the engineering aspect, the building, the mechanics, the stuff I’m not as good at. And I do think girls need more exposure to that. I have a colleague in the Lower School who’s doing this with 7 year olds. I can’t wait to get her kids in middle school.
The thing I’m really pondering, though, is how to make inroads here. This is not a group that’s hostile to girls; it’s just that there aren’t that many of them. So I think it can feel weird to some girls. I had a girl say to me, “I just realized how nerdy this is.” And then she said, thankfully, “And I also realized I don’t care.” I had an absolutely endearing conversation with a boy who was on our team at one point (each team gets paired with a team you don’t know for each match). He was lamenting that they were have some “center of gravity” issues, and wondered if we’d worked out our lift issues. He was unfazed by the issues we were having and just felt we were all in the same boat together. It was really cute.
I can’t, I don’t think, by myself, get enough girls there to make a showing of girls. And I’m wondering if that is indeed what I *should* do. If I were to frame this as a research question, I think there’d be several. One, what impact does participating in robotics competitions have on girls’ interest in engineering and computing? Two, what impact does the increased presence of girls have on boys acceptance of girls as equals in engineering and computing? And, three, are there other ways of impacting girls’ interest in engineering and computing that are more effective?
As a side note, do these things impact boys’ interests in engineering and computing or do these kinds of activities intersect with some kind of cluster of interests that boys have in their pre-teen/teen years that create a prevalence of boys at these events?
I will say that I’ve noticed some things about girls that I hope this program can remedy. Girls lack confidence in their abilities in this area. Yes, our robot was not nearly as good as the best robot there, but a lot of other robots, built by boys, were also not as good. The boys that built those not so good robots were completely okay with their robots–and just worked harder to make them better. Many girls, maybe just my girls, assume they don’t have what it takes to make the robot better. Girls are also not aggressive enough–on the field, in trying things out, etc. This is connected to the lack of confidence. Girls seem to worry more about “messing up”. As I said more than once, “What’s the worst that can happen?” If you’re okay with the worst, then give it your all.
So, whatever my misgivings are about this whole robotics competition stuff, I do think there are ways it helps–building confidence in their mechanical skills and building their assertiveness in areas where they might feel less knowledgeable. It also develops communication and collaborative skills in a way that’s much more effective than what they do in classes, imho. Yes, I know, I should just do the research already and publish it. Sadly, the bad thing about being a teacher, not enough time for that. In fact, I should be prepping for class right now!