Boys Watch Out: Girl Power Rises in Robotics

I just got back from a robotics practice tournament at Intel this morning, an event where schools and clubs participating in the FIRST Lego League, come to learn, and make the necessary mistakes before the real thing.

Intel_Scrimmage 2009One thing that clearly stood out was the increasing number of girls in these clubs. I have been attending these events with my team for about three years now, and began to see the change last year, as robotics begins to go mainstream.

This is exciting for many reasons, as we educators try to break the stereotypes as to what kinds of engagement suit whom. This is not to discount the many teams with young men who are very passionate about robotics.

In a guest speaker slot a meteorologist (above: he was brought in because this year’s challenge is ‘Nature’s Fury‘) asked the kids questions about weather sensors and ‘data’, and a few kids knew what a ‘servo’ was. They instantly got the GIGO (garbage in, garbage out’) concept. I’ sure many other coaches and parents were pleasantly surprised at the questions they (girls and boys) peppered him with. And that was after the girls did swimmingly at the tables, changing attachments, modifying move blocks etc.

Intel must be excited about this girl momentum. I have heard from many tech folk there how they are trying to bring in more women into engineering, so in about 12 years, when these kids are about the graduate from collage, there’s going to be a rush to grab them into the workforce.

Inviting ‘Intel inside’ class

The ‘open’ classroom is often discussed as synonymous with online access. But I like to think of my class as being open in another way –bringing in professionals from the outside world.

Intel's Don WildeI’m particularly lucky, with two mentors who come in on a weekly basis to assist me in robotics: Don Wilde from Intel, and Bill Johnson from Scottsdale Community college. We have an open door policy, literally, in our school for getting experts like them.

I have been following Intel’s push to put science high on the agenda, especially for K-12 education. From former Intel Chairman Craig Barrett’s investment in talent and capital with the Basis charter schools, to its involvement in S-T-E-M-related work.

To get back to Don. Last evening, as this picture shows, he talked to them about programming, specifically the principle of  DRY — ‘Don’t Repeat Yourself‘! He showed them how to use the My Block to create loops and variables. Serious stuff. Some would think this is way above the heads of a 4th or 5th grader. To which I counter, it’s about time we stopped dumbing down our content in our curricula –a la Basis. (I happen to tutor two children from Basis, so I know a thing or two about their tough grading standards and how they challenge students.)

To wrap up the class, I asked my students to surprise Don with a project I had thrown at them. I divvied them up into two three teams and got them to build three complex bots: A Voice-controlled robot, a mini Rover, and a Spider.  I left him to judge the best presentation on how they problem solved the build-out and programming.

If science education is lacking one thing, it is making it relevant to real world problem solving. More on this  and the 3 bots in another post.

Robotics in S-T-E-M sweet spot, going mainstream

With Lego Mindstorms, drag-and-drop programming reduces the geekiness involved in learning to make a robot do your bidding.

It’s especially enticing to a fourth grader, whose mind is bursting with ideas, and who wants to make her bot do more than raise an arm or beep when it encounters an obstacle. Last afternoon I sat with Bill Johnson, our mentor who comes in every week to help my robotics class with the technical aspects of Lego’s NXT brick. I was fascinated by the programming ideas at NXTprograms.com that let a 10-year old build a rattlesnake or a lawn mover.

No coincidence that Time magazine has featured Mindstorms this week! Thought it’s a thinly veiled plug for the new programmable brick, the model EV3, that will be released this summer, it talks about how Lego has been furiously adapting to a generation of digital natives who put app and bots in the same bucket –the bucket labeled ‘fun’ on one side, ‘hand-held’ on the other.

DSC_0014I keep a somewhat menacing-looking robot with a claw on my shelf in class, if only to remind my students in the computer and technology classes that computers are more than mice and keyboards; that games are more than sling-shotting an angry bird.

Games and bots are problem-solving opportunities in STEM-based curricula. In a few years –months, maybe– robotics is gonna go mainstream. It’s still a nice-to-have in many schools, but whenever I talk to engineers from Intel, Microchip and other tech firms, I see why they are keenly eyeing this sweet-spot. It’s where the puck –or rattlesnake bot –is moving.