STEM Talent is Everywhere, Even Amongst the Robots
March 21, 2022
My son’s high school robotics team just wrapped up their competition season. They made it all the way to the state finals for the first time. It was a real treat for me, a confirmed STEM fan and robot nerd, to get to see them compete in person in the regional qualifier. The team was tight, worked collaboratively, moved quickly to address all the inevitable technical hiccups, and they did an amazing job of networking and setting up alliances with other teams on the field.
We live in a small, diverse suburban district so it was particularly wonderful to see so many boys of color from varied backgrounds on our team, except that’s where the diversity sputtered. While there are several girls on the team, and they were certainly engaged and active participants, I could not help but notice that they stayed mostly in the background. They ran diagnostics, grabbed materials and tools, tweaked and refined the robots between matches—they were clearly essential to team’s seamless functioning. When I asked my son why there weren’t more girls driving or leading on the actual field, he said they just didn’t want to. It made me wonder…
It’s no secret that the STEM disciplines have struggled with diversity in this country, particularly gender diversity and particularly in the technology, engineering and mathematics sectors—and some of the sciences, too. According to the latest research from the Society of Women Engineers, women only make up 13 percent of the engineering workforce; 26 percent of the computer science workforce; and 17 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty in engineering. While there have been gains, particularly in the last decade, women in engineering still only make 90 cents on the dollar compared to men.
A high school robotics team may seem like a frivolous way to think about the gender inequities in STEM, but it is somewhat of a canary in the coal mine. Young people in general, and girls in particular, tend to opt out of identifying as ‘STEM kids’ fairly early on—as early as pre-school according to some research. These fixed ideas about who is or isn’t a math or science person take root early, persist and discourage so many talented young women from taking the coursework or engaging in the activities—both formal and informal—that pave their path to personally fulfilling and financially rewarding careers in STEM.
My hope is that next year, when we’re back to the robot wars, I’ll not only see more young women on the team, but I’ll see them driving and leading on the field, too. As they say, if you can see it, you can be it. And who knows, maybe we’ll make it all the way to the world championships this time!