Story and photos by Alexa Acosta, Collin College alumna
An astronaut is stranded on a lonely planet. It’s your job to save him. Go.
That was the premise given to young women in grades seven through 10 who attended Collin College’s All-Girls Robotics Camp held July 15-17 at the Spring Creek Campus. In this scenario, the astronaut was a foam block and had to be “saved” through the use of a camera robot.
With a large sheet between the girls and the “playing field,” they were only able to see exactly what the camera could.
“They go up with Velcro on their robot to the foam block (astronaut), and they have to navigate through obstacles and out of the course with the block in tact,” Professor of Physics Greg Sherman said. “It can be a bit of a challenge because the remote control itself actually interferes with the camera signal. There’s a lot of buzz, but we tell them, ‘You’re in this dire circumstance, and you have a bad camera feed, but you’ve got to save the astronaut.’”
As expected, the girls thrived on the challenge.
Ninth grader Revathi Rajan learned first hand that socially constructed gender norms affect a lot more than assumed color preferences, making a strong impact on a child’s perception of themselves and their education.
“I never thought I would enjoy programming a robot this much,” said Rajan, who now hopes to pursue a STEM career. “It seemed like something a boy would be interested in, not me.”
Director of Engineering Dave Galley said these stereotypes are part of why more young girls are not pursuing STEM careers.
According to the “Annual Review of Sociology,” the conventional notions that men outperform women in science and math are imposed from very early on in education. For many young women, this results in issues like test anxiety or poor self-esteem in STEM-focused courses.
“Men expect they will do well in their upper-level technical classes because they are expected to do well in math and science,” said Bita Behgooy, Collin College student president of Society of Women Engineers. “Women, on the other hand, have all odds against them. They are a minority, so, in many ways, that’s intimidating.”
Galley explained that because of this, while boys only need confirmation of their abilities when confronted with STEM-related tasks, girls need affirmation, visualization and confirmation.
“Young men come to robotics camp and confirm that they can perform the activities presented to them without presupposed ideas,” Galley said. “Girls, on the other hand, need much more.”
As a result of existing stereotypes in fields such as engineering and robotics, girls first need to affirm that what they are doing is appropriate. Then, they need to visualize themselves as successful professionals.
Combating the Problem
To address this need, Galley and the Collin College team bring in female engineers to speak with and mentor campers.
“Separating girls from boys in a camp like this enables girls to interact without interference from the boys,” Sherman said. “This gives them the opportunity to see what they are capable of, even in activities they themselves would associate with boys.”
Camp volunteer and chemical engineer Kelly Stark emphasized the impact STEM-focused opportunities in her childhood made on her career choice.
“Programs, much like this, influenced me to pursue a career in chemical engineering,” said Stark, a Forward Vision Marketing employee. “An engineering camp I attended in seventh grade left a long-lasting impression on me.”
Career Incentives and Female Contributions
Stark added that advantages for women in this field have always existed.
“More scholarships were available to me because I was a minority and job offers were 10 to one, compared to my male peers, ” Stark continues.
Behgooy, a future civil and mechanical engineer who chose to pursue an engineering career despite her parents’ warning that it would be too difficult, said that women bring a unique perspective to the industry. She noted that, in her experience, women in engineering bring stronger skills in creativity and detail.
The All-Girls Robotics Camp is sponsored by the Collin College Engineering Department, the Collin College Robotics Club, Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and the National Science Foundation.
For more information about Collin College engineering, STEM or robotics, visit http://www.collin.edu/academics/programs/index.html.