Who’ll Run the World? Girls! And Robots.

Today's guest post is from Sruti Modekurty. Sruti is a 2012 National Award Runner-Up and 2012 Northern California Affiliate Award Winner of our Award for Aspirations in Computing. She is a graduate of Mira Loma High School in Sacramento, California, and is currently a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University where she is pursuing a major in electrical and computer engineering. Sruti has been involved in FIRST and VEX robotics since 7th grade, and with her teams has participated in five World Championships. She was an intern at Intel during the summer of 2013, and in her spare time she loves to read, sing, be outdoors, and sleep!

“Okay, I got the robot to go through the obstacle course. Can you teach us how to connect multiple robots together now?” asks a sixth-grader.

To passersby, the camp may seem like any other camp, one of the many happening on the UC Davis campus this summer. Fifteen middle school girls, coaches and assistant coaches, snacks, team-building games, field trips - typical camp stuff. But take a step inside the lab and the statement above from the sixth-grader wil not seem so out of place.

You’ll see middle school girls typing away at the computer and programming the robot like professionals. Others will be at the obstacle course, testing their programs, while their teammates document their progress in their engineering notebooks. Others will be filming and editing footage of what appears to be a robot dressed up as a scientist. What? Is this a sight from another world you may ask? The Girls for Computing and Robotics Leadership camp – funded by the AspireIT Program in collaboration with the UC Davis C-STEM Center program - taught the girls everything from programming and engineering principles, to leadership skills and teamwork, to video production, all through robotics and in the very short span of a week! The goal of the camp was to not only teach them life skills in STEM but also encourage and empower them so as new leaders, they can in turn inspire their peers.

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The robots we used, called Linkbots, and the programming environment, ChIde (a simplified version of C) were developed by Professor Cheng, director of the UC Davis C-STEM Center. The robots are small and modular, allowing for easy attachment of multiple robots into various configurations. Since the robots were so simple to build, the girls could focus on learning basic programming principles to control the robots.

Once the girls gained some experience controlling the robots, they were put into teams and asked to identify a real-world problem and design a solution that utilized robotics. They then had to create a video to explain the problem and their solution, using the Linkbots. They loved it and their solutions were quite frankly adorable! They had no problem identifying a real-world issue and presenting it in a creative way. This was a great learning moment for me as I saw firsthand how girls approach the problem differently from boys! I previously taught an elementary school robotics club which was predominantly boys, and whatever the assignment (model a mode of transportation, navigate through the obstacle course), it quickly turned into BATTLEBOTS. Whereas the girls genuinely wanted to know how programming and robots can be used in the real world to help people. I can’t think of a better example to showcase why we need more girls in computing and technology fields!

In addition to the robotics curriculum we also taught them real-life project skills – including teamwork, presentation, and leadership skills. In the mornings we would watch a video and have discussions about girls/women in STEM (it was great to hear their perspective on why there are so few girls in those fields). We had women leaders in the industry as guest speakers and role models, and even Skyped with one who was in China (another way of connecting them to technology)!

The girls also got a glimpse of college life when we took them on field trips to the UC Davis dining hall (hence the most popular question of the week: “when are we going to the buffet again?”), the dorms, and a physics classroom where they got a demonstration about supercooled semiconductors (pretty cool stuff!).

At the end of the week, they showcased their new-found robotics expertise and presented their projects to parents and peers. The highlight of the camp – and all the girls were unanimous about it – was surely the video project. It was amazing to see how fast they picked up on video production aspects like editing and set design (guess how many tubes of glitter glue we went through) and how easily they programmed the Linkbots to “act” in their videos. It was very fulfilling to see how excited and proud they were about their projects and how well they bonded with each other as teammates.

After the camp, the girls were given Linkbots to borrow and we are currently helping them establish robotics/technology clubs in their own schools. The goal is to have them use the skills they learned to train the next batch of girls in their schools. And looking at how the girls took charge, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the next Sally Ride or Elon(a) Musk from this group of girls in the next ten to fifteen years!!!