Taken from Issue 1 | When working on the theme of error, it’s easy to focus on the negative: the mishaps, mistakes and glitches of everything from the personal space of the mind to the vastness of the universe. But we thought we’d take some of the topics offered through error, and showcase something a little more positive.
Take, for example, robots. The mechanical fiction of this issue deals with them operating not-so-well, shall we say, but in America, robotics clubs are being used as a key way of getting young girls interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Girls of Steel, an all-girls high school robotics team, is one such example.
“This programme is designed to empower and inspire girls,” explains mentor Terry Richards. “The girls are the leaders, the designers, the builders, the programmers, the media specialists, the electronics experts – girls are in every role.”
Girls of Steel, based in Pittsburgh and sponsored by the Field Robotics Centre at Carnegie Mellon University, brings together dozens of students from many schools, and is part of a larger organisation, FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology). Each year, FIRST presents a new challenge, and teams have six weeks to work together and build a robot. “After the six weeks there are competitions, which are basically like giant sporting events, just with 120-pound robots,” explains one student, Lauren Scheller-Wolf.
“There are many skills and opportunities that the team get to tackle,” continues Terry. “The girls learn a wide range of technical and business skills such as computer aided design (CAD), how to give presentations at conferences and outreach events, how to run social media, team leadership, electronics, programming, machining, mentoring at summer camps, and more. In addition they have unique opportunities such as meeting astronaut Cady Coleman via teleconference while she was on the International Space Station and again when she visited Pittsburgh, meeting former US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, meeting former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meeting producers from Disney and inspiring the female characters in Big Hero 6, and more.”
The opportunities and skills gained are incredible for young girls, but they’re also teaching on a more personal level through the teamwork. “The obvious skills are technical, of course, but just as importantly, we are helping the girls find the confidence in themselves to lead, to choose their own path, and even to fail, get back up and try again,” explains Thomas Pope, another mentor. “Being able to operate a milling machine, weld aluminium, or program a robot are all skills that may or may not be useful as they go off to college, but knowing that they can do those things, that they can do anything they set their minds to doing … that I believe is the true value of the programme.”
Girls of Steel
It’s a sentiment shared by the students. On top of finding a confidence in several skillsets and team activities, it’s helped broaden their potential career interests.
“When I began on the team I actually had no interest in STEM,” says Langley Turcsanyi, a 10th grade student. “Being on the team not only gave me teamwork and leadership skills but also gave me more appreciation for the STEM field. Now looking at the news I see countless articles describing the newest and best inventions (including autonomous vehicles, etc) and I find it pretty amazing that a person came up with the incredible idea and then had the motivation to actually create it. There really is not any other field quite like STEM.
“Getting girls into the STEM world at a young age serves as a catalyst for their future. They realise that it is something that they can achieve and it gives them the motivation to do so.” This inspiration is teamed with a shift in cultural dialogue. Though there are still disparities in the number of females entering certain fields, the leaps in the last few years are clear, and teams like this are making a strong impact at possibly the most key age.
“For many years there was a stigma that girls couldn’t do STEM,” notes Lauren. “That they had to do the humanities and leave the hard sciences to the boys. This sprang from centuries of sexism; from ideas that girls were too delicate to do many things, that it would affect their ability to have children, that their minds just couldn’t handle the strain. In a lot of ways this stigma is still around.
“Studies have shown that when girls and boys are little they like STEM in equal numbers, but once girls reach middle school the number of girls who say they’re interested in STEM starts to decline sharply. I think a lot of the reason for this is that society tells girls in a million different ways (often unintentionally) that STEM isn’t for them and that they’re some sort of freak if they want to be a scientist or an engineer."
The need for role models comes up repeatedly from mentors and students alike. “I think there have been struggles with females focusing on their interests in STEM because of a lack of role models,” notes Terry, pointing to the documentary Miss Representation, and Marian Wright Edelman’s quote: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
But thanks to teams like theirs, young girls can see many examples of women across these fields, and get hands on experience in the process. On top of showcasing women in STEM to look up to, the team also makes the teens themselves role models to even younger girls, bridging the gap between being able to just showcase those far into their career, to also showing schoolgirls their peers doing wonderful things in tech.
Student Anne Kailin Northam explains,“Girls of Steel was formed with the goal of convincing every girl in the world that she can be part of a STEM field. Because of the stigma around girls in STEM and the fact that it is a male dominated field, girls are often discouraged even if they are interested. Our goal as a team is to exemplify female success to young girls and show them they can do anything.”
Robotics is being used as a gateway to many things – career prospects, skills, teamwork, new friends – but most importantly, in the case of Girls of Steel, it’s teaching a generation of young girls that limits do not exist and they can do anything, and what’s more incredible than that?