Girls just want to do robotics. At least, that's the premise behind efforts to correct the gender imbalance in engineering, starting with getting girls interested at an early age. The MathWorks (Natick, Mass.), which makes software for technical computing and model-based design, is picking up part of the tab for a weekly after-school robotics club for fifth graders. Girls at Wilson Elementary in Framingham, Mass., work in teams of three, coming up with the design for an "assisted device" a robotic creation that provides handicapped access. It could be a vehicle but doesn't have to be.
The club is designed to play on the strengths of girls in that age group, said Stephen King, who oversees the program. They like the idea of building something to benefit others, he said.
And an all-female environment is important. "It makes the girls feel a lot more comfortable and at ease when they're not competing with the boys," said King, who directs the Center for Women and Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, a nonprofit state agency on work force development. The center is part of a national effort to improve math and science education for underrepresented demographic groups.
The club, one of many agency programs, looks like a winner, according to King. The 27 girls are having a good time while they work on their bots. "It's learning in disguise," he said.
From robotics clubs to high school physics summer camps, there are countless government, education, industry and nonprofit efforts under way to improve K-12 math and science education, and to attract girls to the technical professions.
Some specifically aim to get more students of both genders into college engineering programs. Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit that offers pre-engineering courses in middle school and high school, is at the forefront of those. But even here, the program's designers pay special attention to the girls. The program, which started in New York eight years ago, is primarily bankrolled by Houston-based food service distributor Sysco Corp.
Timing is everything when it comes to engineering-school preparation. To get into college programs, students need exposure to basic engineering principles in middle and high school. "Everybody sees that you've got to get them in K-12," said Bruce Westermo, assistant dean for student affairs at San Diego State University's engineering college, which trains teachers in the PLTW courses.
High school students often have no idea what to expect from a college engineering program. "The kids don't know what it's about," Westermo said. "They don't know about the level of rigor."
Test results and grades aren't everything, he said. "The data shows that just having a high GPA and a high SAT score is not the best indicator for success in college engineering programs," Westermo said. "What matters more is if they had a rigorous introduction to engineering."
PLTW's goal is to offer that.
A total of 45 states and the District of Columbia have middle and high school instructors trained to teach one or more of its courses. The project-based curriculum includes one course for middle school Gateway to Technology and eight for high school. Those include digital electronics, civil engineering and computer-integrated manufacturing, along with pilot programs in aerospace engineering and biotech. More than 250,000 students across the country have taken at least one of the courses.
PLTW is well aware of the underrepresentation of females in engineering, Westermo said. The program has separate brochures for girls that go to the parent-teacher associations of schools considering adopting the program. Also, PLTW conferences for school counselors include tips on how to interest girls in the courses.