By Stacie Gonzalez
Girl Scouts of the USA recently introduced 15 new badges focused on science, technology, engineering and math. They include robotics challenges and engineering tasks like roller coaster and race car design and join 21 existing STEM badges that girls age 5 and older can earn.
The badges are part of the organization’s ongoing effort to address girls’ lack of exposure in these fields. The initiative proves timely: U.S. students currently rank 38th out of 72 countries/economies in math, and 25th in science, while the United States Department of Commerce Economics & Statistics Administration projects that STEM occupations will grow by 8.9 percent from 2014 to 2024, compared to 6.4 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.
Local Girl Scout Troop 3841, managed by Booz Allen engineer and Air Force reservist Lenora Nelson, 56, took note of the new badges and encouraged 15 of its fourth- and fifth-grade girls to pursue them, an effort that would include designing, programming and showcasing robots. (Transparency note: I’m a leader for Troop 3841.)
The search for an expert who could donate a chunk of time took several weeks; the Troop needed someone who could not only teach the topic, but who could inspire. That someone turned out to be Vicki Taylor, STEM Outreach Professional for the Pre-Collegiate Success and Support Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Taylor, 55, is a former District 20 board member and former software engineer in the defense industry. She is passionate about education and all things STEM and has been working with students in K-12 STEM education since 2009. “I majored in computer science,” she says, “but if I had to do it over again, I would definitely be doing something in the robotics field; I think it’s a very exciting place to be.”
Over the course of four months, Taylor met with the girls and talked with them about how robots are useful in everyday life, how they work, and how engineers create the instructions to tell a robot how to understand and respond to its environment.
“NASA is making a Robonaut right now to help the astronauts in space,” says Luci Campobenedetto, 10. “They’re programming it to type and fix leaks and stuff.”
But robonauts are just the tip of the iceberg. Kathy Tobey, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin Space, says “robotics and automation are helping society deliver the exacting standards that space exploration and national defense demand. For example, we need robots to precede humans in the exploration of space, and often to cold, dark, hostile places in our solar system where humans can’t go. In Colorado, we’re operating six robotic missions that we built for NASA, and many of the flight engineers on the missions are women.”
Each meeting with Taylor advanced the girls’ knowledge and critical thinking skills. She brought in LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robot kits to teach them simple programming and code. Eventually each team planned and designed a robot of their own, one that could help people. “A lot of young ladies are attracted to professions where they think they can make a difference, so I think showing them how robotics can make a difference in people’s lives is part of it,” says Taylor.
Each team discussed what the robot would do and whether it would require color, touch or ultrasonic sensors. They researched design instructions for their prototypes on the internet: a seeing eye dog you don’t have to feed or walk, a giraffe with a bowl on its back that helps retrieve items for the sick or elderly, and a security camera that tricks robbers into thinking it’s a fish.
The group saw some attrition as the weeks passed; only nine girls would go on to meet Taylor for a full Saturday on the UCCS campus to build their robots. “I want them to start seeing themselves on a college campus,” she says. “I want them to say to themselves: I can be here; I can do this; I could be going to school here.”
Astoria Spradlin and Alena Brunton, both 10, programmed their robot, Tom, to wheel around a home, extend a hook and pick up laundry. “We spent a long time getting the number of tread pieces on to the tracks and putting it around the wheels,” says Alena as she repositions Tom’s arm and re-programs its reach. When asked why they gave their robot a male name, Astoria grins and says, “Because usually back in the old days women used to always stay home and do the laundry and clean the house, but now we have a man who’s doing the laundry and his name is Tom.”
Alena’s brother is on a School District 20 robotics team and that connection has given her a boost of confidence. “It’s fun and you sort of get lost in it. You don’t realize how much time goes by because you’re having so much fun,” she says. “I feel really good about this. We know what our robot is going to do and that it is going to work.”
Kesley Mitchell, 10, Elise Kretschmer, 11, and Campobenedetto struggled to collaborate on their robot, PuppyBot, each preferring to work independently. With Taylor’s help, they learned that robotics often involves working with people who are experts in different fields and have different backgrounds. “It’s okay to work by yourself sometimes, but you get things done quickly if you work with others,” says Campobenedetto. “Also, I think you should have your teammates there to help you to say, “This isn’t right.”
PuppyBot has a security camera in it so that when a robber enters a home, the puppy catches it on tape. A combination of ultrasonic rays and a motion sensor turn the camera on and aim it toward the intruder.
“Robotics is not easy,” says Mitchell, “but I had a lot of fun learning programming — to do one thing, test it, find out the result, and then retry.” Campobenedetto agrees: “I think no matter what age, girl or boy, everybody should at least participate in robotics; it’s very fun, a great learning experience.”
Taylor attributes her passion for working with single-gender groups to the persistence of stereotyping in fields like engineering and math: “Stereotyping is still happening. I grew up where if you were going to go to college you were going to be a teacher or a nurse. I was lucky enough to have parents who thought it was okay to push that envelope. When I graduated from college in 1985, 33 percent of the graduates with a BS in Computer Science in this country were women. It is now less than 17 percent. I think a lot of it has to do with what young women see themselves doing. They are stereotyping themselves, too.”
Could these stereotypes be playing out in Girl Scouts of Colorado’s badge sales? While there are more than 17,500 Girl Scouts in grades K-5 across the state, GSC’s public relations director, AnneMarie Harper, reports that only 1,357 of the STEM badges introduced to this age group last July have sold. It’s difficult to say why sales in this category are low, but it might be tied to how involved the badge requirements are. For troops to provide girls with an authentic experience, they will need professionals in STEM to step forward with the right equipment.
A spokesperson for GSUSA confirms that 18 cybersecurity badges will be issued in September 2018, followed by a series of Space Science badges — exciting news for many girls, parents and members of the STEM community. Alya Elhawary, a battery design staff engineer for Lockheed Martin Space, says, “It’s amazing to see so many young girls teaming together to come up with solutions to challenging problems. Especially in middle school, having an all-girls team can really help with motivation as they now have a network of other female peers that enjoy being involved in robotics just as much as they do. In a co-ed environment, having male students and adults show support for females in STEM is critical. Interactions like these at an early age will make a big difference in how they all interact in a future work setting.”
Eight members of Troop 3841 ultimately earned the GSUSA’s trio of robotics badges when they satisfied the last requirement and showcased their work to parents and UCCS engineering students in April. During their presentations, they shared some challenges: “It didn’t work the way I wanted it to work” … “Working as a team is hard” … “Sometimes the motor fell off.”
But in the end, much of their success could be attributed to the mistakes they made. Eleven-year-old Madi Cunningham was asked why it’s important for other girls to explore robotics. With a sparkle in her eyes she said, “Because you can flex your mind a different way.”