Wellesley’s Robogals Encourage Young Girls to Have Fun With Engineering

March 4, 2015
Robogals workshop

When a group of girls from local public elementary schools came to Wellesley’s campus for a recent Robogals workshop, they had no idea they’d be taking part in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities that could benefit both their own futures and the economy. The girls just knew they’d be having fun, building their first simple robots.

Veronica Lin ’15 and several enthusiastic student volunteers welcomed participants and their parents. Lin is the training manager of Wellesley’s chapter of Robogals, an international, student-run organization that aims to increase the number of talented young women in the field of engineering. Wellesley’s branch is one of the group’s first in North America.

“We need women in the tech industry–research has proved that diversity leads to more and better innovation,” says Lin, a computer science and economics major. “Too many young girls are either discouraged from studying STEM-related fields or are never given the opportunity to discover the technology world, and we're hopeful that our Robogals workshops will change things, at least for this community.”

After a brief introduction to robotics and an icebreaker activity, participants split into groups for two half-hour activities. The first used Scratch and Scratch Jr. to teach the girls the basic blocks of programming and to let them have some fun with the “Scratch cat.” The second activity used littleBits, small magnetic modules that snap together to make circuits. Each group created a different project, such as a robotic animal, a disco ball, or even a bathtub.

While some girls jumped right in and took the lead as they worked, others watched for several minutes, trying to get a feel for the technology before they dove in themselves. Yet by the end of the workshop, everyone was enthusiastic about what they’d created, and about continuing to experiment at home.

That excitement to learn is what motivated Tali Marcus ’15 to found Wellesley’s Robogals chapter last fall. A psychology major and a computer science minor, Marcus became involved with robotics early in 2013. “I have always loved working with kids, and when I found out that a family friend teaches a robotics and engineering class at a local school in Watertown, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with her and combine these two interests,” she says.

The following semester, Marcus went to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where she came across Robogals at a club fair (the group began at Australia’s University of Melbourne in 2008). Wellesley seemed like a great place to start a new chapter, she says, given the college’s longtime emphasis on helping women excel in STEM fields.

Both Marcus and Lin have read multiple media reports about the gender gap in the technology industry and the ongoing discussions about stereotypes of women in tech. They see Robogals as a tool to engage girls, who can benefit from STEM education no matter what career path they pursue.

“In our society, where everything we do and use is becoming more and more dependent on technology, it can only help to explore the field in some way,” says Marcus. “Beyond understanding how the things around us work, these skills can also be useful in a wide variety of contexts, whether finance, environmental studies, art, or political science.”

Lin agrees.I don't expect all the girls to go home and teach themselves programming, but I do hope they gain a better understanding of what STEM is, and that they are capable of making really cool things.”