Robotics program introduces girls to tech

February 25, 2019 GMT

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — For as long as Epiephanie LaBoy can remember, she’s wanted to know what makes things work.

When she was younger, the eighth-grader at the all-girls Grace Academy in Hartford would methodically disassemble her older sister’s cellphones whenever she replaced them and marvel at the complex circuitry within.

“She would give them to me, and I’d break them apart to see what was inside,” LaBoy, 13, said. “I’d look at the motherboard and all the pieces and say, ‘This is mine now.’”

Those early experiments fueled a curiosity that led LaBoy to specialize her studies in technology and science, and to join the recently formed robotics team at Grace, which she now heads as captain. But LaBoy also recognizes that she’s something of an exception in a field largely dominated by men, a fact that teachers at Grace and a growing number of area manufacturers are now working to change.

As part of a partnership with Collins Aerospace and parent company United Technologies Corp., about 60 students from Grace, ranging from fifth to eighth grade, got a crash course in robotics at the Connecticut Science Center on Thursday.

Huddled around Lego building kits, with laptop computers and interfaces to program miniature cars, the students toyed with their designs, trying to calibrate the machines to complete a series of tasks. Laughter and accomplished shrieks of joy filled the room as motors hummed to life and wheels spun.

Carolyn Begnoche, a product design drafting checker at Collins who oversaw the program, said whole careers in the manufacturing and technology sectors can start with simple exposure to those fields. Collaborations between corporations and schools, Begnoche said, get girls to picture themselves in ways they might not have before.

“Fewer than 20 percent of engineers in the United States are women, and that number is even smaller globally,” she said. “We can do a lot better, and it starts with events like this that get girls interested.”

Surveying the bustling room, Begnoche said she had no doubt that some of the students would pursue degrees and later jobs in the science and engineering fields.

“This is our future,” she said.

Madelyn Rindal, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at Grace Academy, seconded that view, and the school tries to get girls to envision themselves in roles they might have felt locked out of because of their gender or race.

“We know that these jobs have great earning potential, and women, especially minority women, are under-represented in them,” Rindal said. “We want the girls to see themselves as being capable of succeeding in the STEM fields.

“Once you show them that science is cool, you’ve hooked them,” she said.

And while the Grace Academy girls are aware that the science and technology fields have tended to exclude women, they have a hard time believing that the imbalance will persist with a new generation of young women breaking into those industries.

“Not a lot of women are really in those fields right now,” LaBoy said. “But that’s going to change.”

“Whether it’s Pratt, Collins, Pfizer, Johnson Labs, or Travelers, these companies want to have children identifying with them,” said John Bourdeaux, vice president of advancement at the science center. “It helps not to have people see them as a black box, and sometimes all it takes is just that level of exposure. Sometimes kids don’t know what they’re interested in until they see it up close.”

Bourdeaux recalled the story of one student who enrolled in the science center’s summer program several years ago and took an unexpected interest in their technology courses.

“He had people to talk to about sports, and he had people to talk to about the music he liked, but he never had someone to talk to about this interest,” he said, noting that the young man is now set to graduate from a local university with a degree in engineering. “It can be as simple as opening that window and showing kids that they do belong in this field.”


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Information from: Journal Inquirer, http://www.journalinquirer.com