@chrisbartley: Don't get me wrong, I think the project in its current form is great. Thanks for the links!
I think the original concept of coming up with something more "girlish" to get girls more engaged in STEM (i.e. keeping diaries, expressing their feelings, etc.) was misguided. But, fortunately, the kids themselves seem to have helped to put you on the right track.
As you point out, the final product is something that can appeal to everyone. In fact, I might order a kit.
Dave Palmer: "The way to deal with this issue is not by presenting engineering in a way which conforms more closely to traditional ideas about how girls should behave, but by challenging these ideas."
I guess I don't understand how the Arts & Bots program isn't gender neutral, or how the methods we're employing are targeting girls more than boys. Is it because of the use of craft and recycled materials? I don't see that as gender specific in any way. Yes, at the beginning, a primary motivation of the project was to figure out how to engage (only) girls, in an attempt at doing research on whether we could help prevent the decline in STEM interest among middle school girls. But I've already explained that, in its current form, it's not gender specific yet remains engaging and completely accessible for both boys and girls, using skills (cutting, gluing, measuring, etc) they already have and enjoy (there may be exceptions, but I'm not aware of any reported cases). I can't imagine what would be more gender neutral. Fact is, girls and boys alike love it, and the teachers are finding it a great way to build STEM concepts in both STEM and non-STEM classes. What would you suggest we do instead? How can we better challenge "traditional ideas about how girls should behave"?
If you're interested, I encourage you (and anyone else here listening) to poke around on the posterous site (http://robotdiaries.posterous.com/) for examples of how its being used. Sure, the project is not perfect, and we're constantly evolving and refining it, and we welcome and encourage feedback on how we can improve.
@chrisbartley: Thanks for joining the discussion, and thanks for your work on this neat kit.
I understand the idea of meeting students where they're at, but I also think it's important to challenge backwards assumptions about gender roles (which, by the way, the original "Robot Diaries" concept seems to have been full of).
The fact is that only 5.5% of mechanical engineers in the U.S. are women, while 95.9% of secretaries are women. How much of this is due to the natural aptitudes of men and women, and how much is due to social conditioning?
The fact that the percentage of women engineers in China is closer to 40% suggests that it is mostly the latter.
The way to deal with this issue is not by presenting engineering in a way which conforms more closely to traditional ideas about how girls should behave, but by challenging these ideas.
Tool_maker: "I do not understand why anyone thinks STEM courses need to be redesigned to attract females."
The main motivation is that studies have shown that girls' interest in robots declines during middle school. So our research question was whether we could do something to help educators tweak courses so that they're interesting to both boys and girls. Maybe doing so will indeed have no effect, and the cause of the decline is something else entirely. But there's no reason not to try.
When we started the project, we originally named it Robot Diaries, with the idea that girls might get in to making robots that could express emotions and could be an extension of the girls' diaries. E.g. maybe a flower that blooms when the girl is happy, and wilts when she's sad. We thought girls might enjoy sharing their robot "expressions" with their friends. We did this as a participartory design project with middle school girls, and found out pretty quickly that nearly zero of them kept diaries, and weren't interested in doing so. They told us that they definitely were interested in robotics, but nearly every time they try out a robotics club, camp, or class, it's completely overrun by boys, and they can't get a word in. And many of the robotics offerings were LEGO-based, which several of the girls thought were "boring". They were, however, also very interested in arts and crafts, so we changed things to emphasize the robotics, the "expressions", and arts and crafts (and, it turns out, usually reusing old materials such as cans, plastic jugs, cardboard, etc. ...reusing before recycling was also a hit with kids and adults alike--free, and better for the environment). It's been a hit so far, and we've found it to be engaging to both girls and boys. In it's current form as "Arts & Bots", the vast majority of deployments is in classes composed of both boys and girls. So we're not encouraging it to be used only for girls or exclusively "aim[ing] at the female of the species". It's just turned out so far to be engaging to both boys and girls alike.
We've heard the complaint that mixing in arts and crafts is "dumbing down" robotics, but I don't see how it's fundamentally any different than, say, LEGOs. The math involved with LEGOs doesn't go much further than counting studs (for most users, anyway), and those and other physics concepts are still present and applicable with craft materials. A big win with the craft materials and "recycle bots" is that the materials are free or very cheap.
I should add that the majority of the deployments aren't teaching robotics. We have (or will have) teachers using the kits to teach sciences, math, anatomy, social studies, and even poetry. Both the kids and the teachers love it because some kids who might not be typically turned on by the primary subject (e.g. social studies), often find the new approach to the topic to be fresh and engaging.
Great discussion here, thanks to all! :-)
(full disclosure: I work for the CREATE Lab and wrote the majority of the Hummingbird's software)
As a kid I would have died for such a wonderful kit. My kits were chemistry kits, Heathkit radios, test equipment, etc. What a wonder the youth of today have at their disposal. And hooray for Birdbrain Technologies (great name!) for providing the kit at an affordable price.
Nice article Jennifer. I really like Nourbakhsh's comment about making the students inventor of technology instead of users. That statement is so important because when I was in grade school my teachers seemed more concerned with students being able to repeat what they said. Heaven forbid if you can up with something different from what they said it was viewed as wrong. Guess you know what side I was on.
Of course society is not gender neutral, nor should it ever be. There are differences and as the French say, "Viva la differance". However, unless there are intentional roadblocks thrown out, deal with it.
As for your office, it sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Crude boorish behavior is not confined to males, and it is not required one be female to let someone know when a line has been crossed. I have told co-workers, including my boss, when I thought their behavior was not only crude, but disrespectful. (How would you feel if someone said that to your wife, daughter, sister, etc. sometimes is all that is required.) I worked with a female purchasing agent who delighted in saying outlandish crude things to me because it made me so uncomfortable and she thought it was funny when I blushed. We had a talk and the behavior stopped.
My wife works in a doctor's office where except for 3 docs and 1 x-ray tech, everyone else is female. One of the doctors was wont to make inappropriate wise cracks, to which the majority of the women responded with giggles and/or one ups. My wife just said, "I don't appreciate that sort of humor." She was no longer subjected to it. Another woman said, "My husband is a truck driver and does not like for men to talk to me that way". She was also no longer subjected to it.
When I went back to school to get teacher certification, my classes and instructors were overwhelmingly female and I never heard anyone suggesting the curriculum be altered to attract any males. In the minds of many people teaching is seen as "women's work", as opposed to "men's work." So what? I did what I wanted to do, as did the female engineers you spoke of.
@Tool_maker: Math and science are gender neutral. It's our society that isn't. While there are definitely women engineers and auto mechanics, their numbers are relatively low. Less than 20% of mechanical engineering graduates, and less than 10% of working mechanical engineers, are women. The numbers are higher in some other engineering disciplines, but in the minds of many people, engineering is seen as "men's work," as opposed to "women's work." It seems to me that the idea that engineering must be disguised as "arts and crafts" in order to appeal to girls promotes this stereotype, rather than opposing it.
Also, because engineering workplaces tend to be heavily male-dominated, they can sometimes present a less-than-pleasant environment for women. The engineering workforce at the company where I work is 100% male -- and after seeing how some of my co-workers treat women, I've come to the conclusion that I wouldn't want my daughter working here. She could expect to be ogled, harrassed, and to have her intelligence insulted at every turn. (Only a tiny minority of the engineers engage in this behavior, but they are never disciplined for it, and the acceptance of their behavior amounts to a tacit endorsement). Of course, not all engineering workplaces are like this, but unfortunately, respect for women is not a given.
In my opinion, the reason why there aren't more women in STEM fields has very little to do with curriculum, and everything to do with backwards cultural attitudes. We should try to eliminate these backwards attitudes, instead of reinforcing them.
This looks like something I would have enjoyed as a kid. Much more potential than Tinker Toys or even Erector sets.
Of course it looks like Ringo. I am sure that the fact it is a drummer was the inspiration for that.
I do not understand why anyone thinks STEM courses need to be redesigned to attract females. I have two daughters. One is a teacher and the other is a project manager for a construction company. I did nothing to push either in the direction they traveled, other than encourage them to pursue what they wanted and do their best. One of my son's best friends is a female auto mechanic, because that is what she wanted to do, not because the course at the tech school was redesigned for girls.
I notice frequent posts from females at this web site so obviously there are some female engineers out there and I seriously doubt that can be attributed to redesign courses, but rather is the result of individual choice and acheivement. I really thought math and science was gender neutral.
Beth, you may be the first person ever to note a resemblance between Barack Obama and Ringo Starr. The next time I see the President on TV, I'll be expecting him to say, "I've got blisters on my fingers!"
Seriously, this looks like a neat kit. Using the kit in an anatomy and physiology class to illustrate the structure of the human arm was a great idea. However, I'm a little troubled by the implication that way to get girls more interested in STEM is to make it more "arts and crafts"-y. There seems to be more than a little gender stereotyping involved here.
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