Team captain and technical overseer of Notre Dame High School’s robotics team, Yashna Bansal ‘17, makes some last-minute adjustments to the robot. Bansal is one of thousands of Bay Area students—including a growing number of girls and young women— who are learning about technology and teamwork, along with other work and life skills, through robotics. As a way to strengthen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, now a top priority, schools and teachers throughout the area have homed in on robotics programs. The classes and clubs are designed to help kids apply what they learn, develop new skills, and prepare them for the highly competitive job market that awaits them on graduation. Bansal says her participation has helped her to understand the value of many math and science subjects covered in her earlier classes, bringing those concepts to life. “In middle school, it was just about learning the facts, and applying them to tests,” she recalls. “But going to a robotics competitions and seeing our robot competing on the field—life-size robots that were bigger and taller than me—was a totally different experience.” 64 South Bay Accent GIRLS JUST WANT TO BUILD ROBOTS Bansal’s experience exemplifies the efforts of many schools to address the gender gap by attracting more young women to STEMbased learning and related careers. There is an obvious need: While women make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, they are much less represented in the fields of science and engineering. Robots to the rescue? If not guaranteed to close the gender gap one electrode at a time, robotics participation adds a vital element of play and creativity that seems to help bridge the divide. Numbers and equations translate to programmed movement and, in some cases, speech as well. And that, in turn, offers a tangible reward to the process of problem solving. The enticement comes at a critical time. Girls Who Code, a nonprofit focused on increasing the number of women in STEM fields, tells us that although 74 percent of young girls express enthusiasm in STEM and computer science careers, their interest declines dramatically in their teenage years. Women hold only 18 percent of college undergraduate computer science degrees and 26 percent of computing jobs after graduation. In the corporate world, they hold just 5 percent of leadership positions in the technology industry. Educational venues appear to play a significant role in defining levels of interest. In coed schools, relatively few girls show up to take part in robotics. But at all-girls schools, there’s widespread involvement. Angi Chau, director of the Bourn Idea Lab at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, says her robotics team is often surprised to realize that so many of the teams they compete against are made up of only boys. They’re also surprised at comments they get along the way, especially when travelling for competitions. “They’re asked questions like ‘Where are the boys?’ and ‘How do you get anything done?’” says Chau. She recalls one incident in particular, when the team stopped at a restaurant and got into a conversation with the waitress. When they told her they were a robotics team, the waitress asked, “Are you the cheerleaders?” FROM TOP: WAYNE HALL; COURTESY OF THE NUEVA SCHOOL; OPPOSITE: COURTESY OF VALLEY CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS; PREVIOUS PAGES: JOANN SCHILB In Nueva School’s Innovation Lab, teacher Steve Westwood guides students as they design and build toys using laser cutter, 3D printer and woodshop tools.
South Bay Accent - Feb/Mar 2017
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