Before heading to the gymnasium floor to compete with robots they helped build, about 100 girls sat down to listen to a panel of female engineers, students and business professionals.
The message: science, technology, engineering and math fields are wide open to women, and there’s never been a better time to embrace that.
Twenty-three teams from across the state recently competed in the inaugural Grand Rapids Girls Robotics Competition at Wyoming High School. It was a girls-only FIRST Robotics competition, with an emphasis on the need for women to pursue careers in STEM. Local teams came from Wyoming, West Ottawa, Grand Rapids, Hopkins, Forest Hills, Grand Haven, East Kentwood, Allendale and East Grand Rapids high schools.
FIRST Robotics involves battling ‘bots programmed and designed to complete a specific objective, like launching a ball into a tower. The annual competition started in 1992 to help students develop a passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and consider careers in those fields. Approximately 78,500 students on 3,140 teams from 24 countries competed during the 2016 season.
Jobs are Waiting
Panelist Jo Anne Perkins, vice president of Cascade Cart Solutions, a division of Cascade Engineering, Inc., said it was encouraging to see a room filled with girls interested in STEM. She said she was recruiting for her future workforce and is “clamoring for female engineers”
Perkins said female engineers are in high demand at Cascade: “We pride ourselves on diversity in the company and as we try to hire in female engineers, we just can’t attract them.”
The career panel also included Lindsay Corneal, assistant professor in the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing at Grand Valley State University; Lauren Hunter, a GVSU senior majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in computer engineering; Wendy Ljungren, an avionics and mechanical systems chief consulting engineer with GE Aviation Systems in Grand Rapids; Traci Marcero, senior technical recruiter for Atlas Coast Consulting in Grand Rapids; and Kate Sample, a student at Emporia State University working towards a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in STEM Education.
Teen Girls Turn Away from Tech
Many of the girls at the robotics event are interested in following traditionally male-dominated career-paths. Women and minorities, who comprise 70 percent of college students but less than 45 percent of STEM degrees, represent a largely untapped talent pool, according to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Also, according the the website Girls Who Code, tech jobs are among the fastest growing in the country. Yet girls start to steer away from programs related to tech between the ages of 13 and 17. Only 4 percent of female college freshmen are enrolled in computing programs.
That means they are missing out on a field projected to see major growth. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs available in computing related fields, according to Girls Who Code. U.S. graduates are on track to fill 29 percent of those jobs and women are on track to fill just 3 percent.
Wyoming robotics teacher and adviser Rick Budden said he hosted the event to connect girls with role models who can offer advice and tell them what to expect.
“I look at it, as a former engineer myself, as you need different perspectives to solve all the different problems,” Budden said. “We need everybody on board.”
Many girls competing, including Alissa Richardson, a Forest Hills Central High School sophomore, have found their passion in robotics.
“This is such a great event and I love it so much,” said Alissa, who hopes to become a mechanical engineer. “It’s such a great opportunity to be able to do robotics and participate on a team.”
Said Wyoming High School junior Judy Brown, “The best thing about it is definitely the people. You come here and you get to communicate with different teams from different areas.”
“We’re close together and reach out to each other,” added Wyoming junior Luz Salgado.