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Inspiring Girls to Pursue Careers in STEM with a Mentor-Supported Robotics Project

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Descriptions of Outreach Programs

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.886.1 - 22.886.10



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Paper Authors


Sanaz Mahmoodi Takaghaj University of Calgary

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Sanaz Mahmoodi Takaghaj received her B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Tabriz in 2004, followed by a M.Sc. degree in Electrical Engineering in 2007 from Iran University of Science and Technology.
She is currently pursuing the M.Sc. degree in Electrical Engineering in the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada. Her areas of interest are Control Systems and Robotics.

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Chris Macnab University of Calgary

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Chris Macnab received his B.Eng. in Engineering Physics from the Royal Military College of Canada in 1993. He received a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies in 1999. He has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 2003. His current research interests include adaptive, fuzzy, and neural-network control applied to flexible-joint robots, mobile robots, quad-rotor helicopters, haptic-feedback teleoperation, and biped running robots. Besides robotic control, his teaching interests include engineering design as well as technology and society. He advocates for social justice in engineering, participating in programs for encouraging tolerance and diversity.

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Sharon Friesen University of Calgary

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Sharon is the Associate Dean of the Office of Professional and Community Engagement (PACE) within the Faculty of Education at the University of Calgary. She is also the Director of the Galileo Educational Network. Her research insterests include the ways in which K-12 educational structures, curriculum and learning need to be reinvented for a knowledge/learning society. She has specific interests in: 1.) the promotion of deep intellectual engagement, 2.) the ability to create learning environments that require sustained work with ideas and 3.) the pervasiveness of networked digital technologies that open up new ways of thinking, ways of working and tools for working and living in the world. She has has co-authored three books. Sharon has received numerous awards, for her research and teaching practice.

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Inspiring Girls to Pursue Careers in STEM with a Mentor-Supported Robotics ProjectThis project aims to interest girls in Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics (STEM) careers, byproviding an exciting Lego Mindstorms robot challenge that students can work on in their school whilesupported by a female engineer mentor. At the end of the year, the students compete their robots.Since Sept. 2009, a female engineering graduate (MSc) student visits four schools on a monthly basis(one each week), providing mentoring. The funding to pay the mentor comes from an Imperial Oilgrant, part of a broader initiative to inspire girls to pursue STEM careers. We are flexible as to thedetails of how the program works in each school. In two schools the mentor works with a lunch-timerobot club, and in two schools she is in a scheduled class. One school is already girls-only, one schoolhad a girls-only robot club in parallel to a boys club, and two schools had mixed (but equal number)genders supported by the mentor. Most students were in grade 5 or 6, but we also had some grade 4and grade 8 students.The female engineering mentor designed a robotics challenge, where the robot must clean a 3.5x7.5foot area clear of an assortment of Lego black and grey gears. The border of the rectangular area ismarked by green tape, and 2x4 walls form the border of the 4x8 table, preventing the robot fromfalling off the table during competition. Points are awarded for each gear cleared, but it is relativelyeasy to clear all the gears. Thus, additional points are awarded based on the time it takes to clear thearea. As an additional challenge, a two-inch high colourful Lego treasure is placed in the centre of thetable and bonus points are awarded for not clearing the treasure. A larger number of bonus points areawarded if the robot can pick up the treasure.We started the program off in Sept. 2009 by having a training session for the teachers at the university,where we had them do a similar challenge with 3 hours to build their robots. Thus, teachers who werenot familiar with the equipment got to learn about it, and all the teachers got an idea of what we have inmind by a “design challenge.”Students are encouraged to form teams of four to build and compete their robots. The students fromthe different schools competed in May 2010 at the Western Canadian Robot Games (WCRG), wheretheir Lego challenge was a specific event. Other events at the WCRG include Sumo robots, line-followers, mine-sweepers, and walkers (see Competitors at the WCRGinclude university engineering students and amateur roboticists of all ages. The Lego robot challengehad different age categories, and was open to anyone. The students in our mentoring program werenot required to pay registration fees.We surveyed the girls on their attitudes toward engineering, robotics, and careers in STEM areas at thebeginning of the year and again after the robotics competition. We found that attitudes and enthusiasmimproved, although, perhaps surprisingly, their attitudes were mainly positive to begin with. One thingwe learned is that teachers can misunderstand assumptions behind unstructured engineering design.For example, teachers interpreted “pick-up” to mean the robot had to have an arm or hand, and toldstudents that building an alternative device (like a dust-pan) would be cheating. Teachers wereinterviewed and were all enthusiastic about the program; it fits into the curriculum very well and isperceived to have a positive impact on students. All teachers were keen to continue the program intheir schools this year.

Takaghaj, S. M., & Macnab, C., & Friesen, S. (2011, June), Inspiring Girls to Pursue Careers in STEM with a Mentor-Supported Robotics Project Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18188

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