Contrary to what a lot of people believe, I think that girls are no different than boys in that they are not especially motivated by social good or purpose. If that were the case, then girls wouldn’t be attracted to music or painting or any other field that did not directly connect to social good or practicality.
In my experience, interest in a particular field is less about gender and more about what stage of learning or expertise the learner is at. Interest and curiosity are more dependent on whether one is a novice learner or an expert or somewhere in between. For instance, if you are a new learner, or unfamiliar with something, you need to be convinced that it is a good use of your time and that the risk of potential embarrassment is outweighed by the potential rewards. Once you are more comfortable with the basics, you begin to be successful at it, you develop your confidence and you actually start having fun. You may start asking more questions and you may need little or no convincing to continue. At this point you may even consider joining a competition and see how your skills fare against those of others.
It is well known that there are not enough girls in engineering and technology, and particularly not enough girls participating in robotics competitions. My hypothesis is that these potential entrants need to see why it is fun, and to be able to explore in a safe sandbox environment.
We worked with one of “America’s Greatest Makers” - Ian Ingram - to break this wall, and created the Biobots program.
It is not a competition.
It is not expensive.
Its very easy to get started.
It is all about nature and animals.
It is fun!
Through the Biobots curriculum students learn to observe animals around them -- and these are not just the cute and cuddly animals we typically talk about. One of the secondary goals of this program is to teach students the power of observation and to notice details that we normally miss. So yes, there are a surprising number of creatures that we share our urban environments with!
Students learn to identify the animal’s main mode of communication, create a mechanical version of the animal that reproduces that communication signal (such as pushups for lizards or tail twitches for squirrels) and then they learn to add sensors and some degree of automation to their “biobot”. In an ideal world, the “biobot” would sense when the real version comes into view and will try to “communicate” with it by playing back the signal.
This curriculum is unique in that it is very low cost (compared to most robotics kits). A pair of students can create a biobot for $30 (and keep reusing some of the electronics if they do not burn them out!). It involves going out into nature and observing animals and it is the perfect sandbox for students who maybe afraid of entering into a competition as their very first step into robotics.
Here is a video by one of our master educators highlighting some awesome biobots from her students.
After a very thorough scan of the research and practice around getting girls excited about engineering and technology, Intel has launched the She will Connect initiative that will bring these safe sandbox experiences to middle school girls across Arizona. Intel is supporting a collective impact model, bringing together a diverse set of partners from community colleges (Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation, Phoenix College, South Mountain Community College, and Gateway Community College), media (Televisa Foundation), civil rights organizations (League of United Latin American Citizens), local partners (Aguila youth) and Iridescent to collaboratively bring programs such as Biobots, introducing girls to the magic of engineering, technology and robotics.
This well put together collaboration is sure to result in some innovative young women developing the next wave of technology, possibly starting with a Biobot version of the Gila Monster and Bark Scorpion!