The rebellion of female adolescents in robotics

El Mercurio

Translated from Spanish.

Today more than ever there are adolescent women who are participating in educational robotics. They occupy a leadership position and excel in international competitions, they are mentors and they open opportunities for the generations to come. Here, four of them tell how robotics has been “their STEM school” before entering the university.

Belén Guede, 20, does not remember the exact moment when everything started. She thinks there are several factors. The formation of groups that promote the development of technologies among women, but also the positioning of several Chilean teenagers in prominent and strategic positions in global robotics competitions.

“That there are women captains is very important, because it allows girls to see that there are women in the robotics,” says the current student of Information Management and Management Control at the University of Chile.

Belén Guede has an outstanding career in technology at her young age and not yet graduated from undergraduate. Winner in 2015 of the “Challenge for Change” contest of the Microsoft YouthSpark program, among more than two thousand participants from around the world, with a project to bring robots to young people in public libraries, she is also the founder of the STEM Academy Chile, a NGO dedicated to the creation of communities and educational robotics teams in Chilean schools and lyceums.

One Monday afternoon is at FabLab UC, a digital fabrication workshop located on the San Joaquin campus of the Catholic University where physical objects are produced, through small-scale machinery, that give life to robots that she and other teenagers deploy in the competitions.

Belén Guide is a pioneer in a group of young Chileans who today stand out in educational robotics. Being all under 20 years old, they occupy leadership positions and participate in international competitions. They have opened the way to new ones, managing to take a discipline until a few years ago that is far and complex, to an increasing number of followers. They have developed their own technological projects, as self-taught, without having even graduated from university.

Next to her is Macarena Abarca, 16 years old, participant in robotics teams, Inspiratec 2017 award, Girls in Tech Chile volunteer and founder of “GIFT Robotics”, an educational initiative to take robotics to countries where it is not yet a part of education, such as Turkey and Norway. Belén and Macarena have become role models for a generation.

And then there are Valentina Flores and Francisca Montecinos, both 16, promoters of educational robotics, as well as outstanding competitors in world competitions.

For all, robotics has become a school that has brought them closer to the world of careers in science, technology, and mathematics (STEM) and has become an excuse to develop soft skills and learn from collaborative work with people from different countries.

“Robotics delivers many tools and experiences that are not found elsewhere. Reading a book you will not be left with the same memories as being with a team, debating what the robot is going to do, about the sensors that have to be used on what language to use. Robotics is a complete experience,” says Francisca Montecinos.

Robotics competitions have proliferated and they have chosen to participate. A month ago, in fact, Belén, Macarena and Valentina participated in the second version of the FIRST Global Challenge, the most cosmopolitan youth robotics competition in the world, which brought together more than a thousand students between 15 and 18 years old, from more than a hundred countries, in Mexico City. For that occasion, they integrated something like the “national selection of robotics”, constituted by five women and five men — until now there was not a team in Chile that was mixed in equal parts –, where Macarena was the captain and Valentina became in the first Chilean female to handle the robot in an international competition.

The contest was called “Energy Impact”, and challenged the teenagers to build a robot capable of feeding power plants to scale and build a transmission network in the most efficient way. The team was prepared, in fact, in FabLab UC.

This warm afternoon of September, they are gathered around the robot where they worked for the competition. Valentina tries to “wake up” the machine they used: an apparatus full of cables, circuits and multiform pieces of millimeter size. With a key, rebuild the structure, connect its mechanisms. Then, from one moment to another the robot starts to move.

COMPETING WITH THE BEST IN THE WORLD

“Robotics has strengthened the leadership of these girls. And what they are doing today is something totally unprecedented,” says Maitetxu Larraechea, Executive Director of Girls in Tech Chile, the world organization headquartered in Chile seeks to give visibility to technology creators through specific initiatives such as the STEM Program “Ingeniosas: Science and Technology for all.”

In this boom of girls and adolescents dabbling in robotics, the experts agree that the increasing supply of robotics and programming workshops and the increasing access to electronic components to create these projects is necessary.

According to Jocelyn Simmonds, academy of the Department of Computer Science of the University of Chile, two barriers – until now important – of entry into robotics in the country are beginning to be overcome. Access to information and technology.

“Robotics allows you to develop computer thinking in a playful way, since you can see immediately how the programs you write affect the robot, be it a drone, a car or something more humanoid. I see that the boys are attached to the robots that they build, they personalize them and they ‘anthropomorphize’ them. In the case of women, I still see a confidence gap. So the idea of ​​having workshops only ‘for them’ is to give them a space where they are the majority, where they are in confidence and can raise their doubts without feeling questioned,” explains Simmonds.

“From the gender perspective, robotics is very strategic. Why? Literature shows that girls reject science and technology because they perceive it as very abstract, because they are solitary and because it is rigid. But robotics is the opposite: it is very specific, the robot moved or not, it is in a team and it is totally creative,” adds Larreachea.

Today there are three Chilean robotics teams competing year after year abroad, in what is the reference youth contest called “FIRST Robotics Competition”. “Corazon de Chilen” – the oldest, where Valentina participates -, “Los chilis” – where captain of the team Macarena participates – and “Pizza Mecánica” – of the lyceum Valentin Letelier is the only team that has a base in a municipal school, where Francisca Montecinos participates.

And if before what they did was participating in interschool, today the expectations of these teams are much more global. And in that, behind them there are organizations, municipalities and private financing.

“This group of girls is taking the school spaces as their own, without seeing limits. They have not wanted to put together a robotic competition to compete here. They want to compete with the best in the world,” says David Leal, director of Innovacien, an NGO dedicated to democratizing innovation and technology, since 2009, with young people inside and outside the school system.

Felipe Pickenpack, mentor of teams participating in FIRST — an American NGO, whose objective is to stimulate young people to get involved in science and technology, through competitions like the FIRST Global Challenge and FIRST Robotics Competition — and mentor of these four teenagers, remembers that a few years ago girls who joined the team were dedicated to write, write essays and supervising marketing instead of building the robots.

“Today they build one-on-one with the boys. Through robotics they discover the world,” he says.

OPENING DOORS

Belén Guide, a graduate of a subsidized private high school, says that her family always supported her: when she wanted to play women’s soccer in high school or when she wanted to venture into the sciences, before entering university, she says that her parents did not distinguish between her and her twin brother — her only brother — from an early age.

Belén Guide recalls in the middle school when she joined ‘Corazon de Chileno’. At that time, gender issues were not a priority for the team.

“It has changed over time; They began to ask why I did not make more women in these spaces, if it deprives us,” she says.

At first, it also passed Valentina Flores. She entered three years ago in robotics for the first time in the team of her school, Patricio Lynch de Valparaiso, where she lives. However, her formal dedication began in the competitions. For a long time she felt a minority among men. But her mother – a dental assistant of the Armada – insisted that she should stay.

“I realized that it was me that felt different. The kids never looked at me as less. I was the one who separated me and did not trust myself. This is worked on in robotics. Robotics is generating ideas from oneself, so for one to do it one must have confidence and believe in what one knows.”

Valentina says she has already traveled five times to compete abroad.

“And today, seeing what I want to study in the future, I demand much more and much more. Robotics opens up many doors for us because we have the experience, long before being in college.”

Several have known cases where families have been opposed or worried when their daughters have expressed the desire to train in this discipline.

“That’s why, today, we are working on breaking down stereotypes,” says Belén Guede.

Macarena Abarca, daughter of an engineer dedicated to renewable energy issues, says her father was the driving force behind her love for technology. He always cared that she learned from her models of solar panels, took the time to explain how they worked, to transmit a taste in the area.

“There began my love for STEM. But when I tried to take a robotics course in the eighth grade, the teacher told me I could not, without arguments,” she says.

She insisted until she got it. She remembers that in classes the teacher did not expect much from her nor was as much required from her like the others. Macarena remained there, adopting a leadership position. And from there she kept going.

“Despite the difficulties, I have not stopped. And I have had problems with robotics equipment. Problems of power or, for example, when those I’m leading those who do not listen to me. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel and not continue, because I’m devoting time that I could devote to the PSU. But from here I can inspire girls who went through the same thing that I do and that I love,” she says and says she plans to study undergraduate at MIT.

“I want to open doors. ‘Girls in tech’ opened a lot of doors for me, so what I do is that I tell my robotics friends to register, to volunteer. I try to recommend that you have. I want to empower them.”

THE FUTURE IN SCHOOLS

Every day there are more schools in Santiago that teach extraprogrammatic workshops about educational robotics. Some are supported by STEM Academy Chile, the community organization founded by Belén Guede and located in Recoleta.

In their case, they prepare elementary and middle school children to participate, just like them, in more specialized leagues in countries such as the United States.

Francisca Montecinos, captain of the Business area in the team “Pizza Mechanic” and student coordinator and project manager in STEM Academy Chile, less than a year ago was inserted into the world of educational robotics, talks about their plans. Today she is co-responsible for the “STEM For a Change” project, where there are talks and conferences and the support of the US Department of State seeking to motivate women from public schools to enter the STEM world.

In a short time, she is the mentor of a robotics team for young children as part of an educational project of the Chilean-American Institute, where she teaches the basics of robots, such as sensors and motors.

“Proxies of the team of children that I mentor, when they met me they said: “And you are the teacher?”. “And how old are you?”. But you do not have to be professional or of legal age to transfer knowledge. In the end, you are teaching a new generation, what you already know,” she says.

They recognize the obstacles. They know that the ecosystem is still in the transition stage.

“Because it is not that we are fifty-fifty today,” says Belén Guede. “But if we see the robotics teams that are of school age, we can expect that, from now on, more girls will be able to professionalize in the STEM area in the future. That’s why we are working on there.”

Valentina Flores remembers that for the competition she attended in Mexico City, she had to compete with the Uzbekistan league.

“As I was the ‘driver’ of my team, I had to talk to the ‘driver’ of their team and make the strategy. He was telling me all the time what to do and I told him: “My robot can do this too.” He had to give in, but I had to be firm,” she says.

Francisca Montecinos adds: “Robotics has always been seen as something futuristic, but it’s something now, something that women are doing. We are demonstrating that we can do it.”

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