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Girls, robots, and Britney

Girls, robots, and Britney

Research studies show that for many girls, their interest in math and science begins to decline as early as the third or fourth grade.

You could have fooled me.

In February, I was lucky enough to participate as a judge in ROBOBLAST 2002. At this annual event held in Austin, TX, 43 girls in the fifth-to-eighth grades built and programmed robots to navigate an obstacle course and pick up keys to a treasure chest. Aided by volunteer engineers/mentors from National Instruments who provided technical assistance, the girls used LEGO Dacta's ROBOLAB teaching tool for K-12 students to create their designs. During the process, they learned a lot about problem solving, making trade-offs, and how math concepts relate to the real world.

As robots with names like Cat Bat, Flying Frog, and Keeper of the Keys traveled the course in search of keys, there was the kind of excitement normally associated with a Britney Spears concert-even when things didn't go exactly as planned. After retrieving a key that was down a well (one of the more difficult maneuvers), for example, Cat Bat began experiencing difficulties, self-destructing in the process. Undaunted, the team enthusiastically showed the judges the individual pieces that were once their robot.

ROBOBLAST's sponsor, Girlstart, is a non-profit organization ( based in Austin whose mission is to provide encouragement to girls in the areas of math, science, technology, and engineering. The organization was founded in 1997 by Rachel Muir, an enterprising young woman who told me that her motivation for starting Girlstart was intensely personal. "I missed out on math and science classes, and I didn't want that to happen to other girls," says Muir.

So far, Muir estimates that Girlstart has impacted approximately 1,500 girls in the Austin area, who have participated in a host of programs ranging from classroom projects to summer and Saturday camps to special events like ROBOBLAST. Later this year, the NSF will study the impact of Girlstart. But I already know what they'll find: I saw it reflected in the radiant faces of 43 smart, self-confident girls.

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