Science educator Nicole Brown is used to facing blank stares when she talks to young women about a career in engineering.
"They think it’s about engines, they think guys in hardhats -- that’s the extent of it," she said.
Government, universities and even make-up companies (think L’Oreal) have poured money into programs encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and while the approaches are varied, one concept is uniformly understood -- girls need to get on board when they’re young.
Brown is the CEO of Robogals, a volunteer-based organisation started by Melbourne student Marita Cheng in 2008, to use robotics to interest girls in science.
Cheng was named Young Australian of the Year in 2012 and while she has since departed to found her own robotics firm, the organisation has now gone global -- reaching 31 locations in nine countries, and training 23,000 girls in the last year,
"We’ve discussed the potential barriers for women and it’s largely the perception of the field itself," Brown said.
“The thought of ‘a guy in a hard hat who has to be super smart and great at maths’, it’s not necessarily that. Engineering covers such a broad range of things and it’s difficult to pin down.
“There is a much more practical understanding of what doctors and lawyers do, for example. Engineering is full of possibilities, but it’s too broad a concept for people to describe or grasp hold of.”
Enter the robots. Male and female volunteers, usually university students attached to a Robogals chapter, visit students in classrooms and use practical examples of programming and training robots to show how varied the applications are within the field.
While early attempts can see the robots crashing into walls and falling from benches, Brown said the sense of achievement and teamwork discovered by the students when they found success was inspiring.
“It’s about the opportunity to work together as a team and to problem solve, these being two of the biggest aspects of engineering, in a comfortable space to experience something they haven’t been involved with in the past.
“One of our success stories was in the UK, where a girl participated in a Robogals workshop when she was in high school. She reached out to us just last year and asked if she could work with us to start a Robogals chapter at the university where she is studying in the field.”