IBM Robo Challenge – what difference does ‘girls only’ make?

We’ve been working for a few years now with IBM on the Robo Challenge project that invites teams of children from local primary schools to compete in a series of programming challenges.

This year, for the first time, the competition was exclusively for girls. There’s a significant gender gap in the programming sector – girls are less likely to study STEM subjects at school and only 16% of females have had a career in technology suggested to them, compared with 33% of males (PWC, Women in Tech, 2017). Primary school age is a critical time to get girls interested in and excited by technology.

IBM Girls Robo Challenge 2019 from LondonCLC on Vimeo.

There was certainly a real buzz and excitement in the IBM building as teams of KS2 girls from 12 schools set about their challenges.  Each team had been given a Lego NXT kit, an IBM mentor and 10 weeks to prepare for a series of exciting challenges such as programming their robot to complete dance routine, taking part in a race and designing and programming their own game on Scratch. There was also an X Factor challenge, which was only  assigned to the students in the morning. All schools had to select two pupils from their team to programme the Lego car to complete all elements of the maze with an added feature.

“It’s been massive to come here and see the IBM building and all these people that work here. The girls have lots of questions already about the kind of jobs there are here. They are in London, at IBM and taking part in this big competition”, said one teacher. “The volunteers coming into the school have been really good at talking to the girls about how the activities relate to real life and explaining how they use the same sort of problem-solving in their jobs. The volunteer gave them real-life examples of coding.”

There was real ingenuity and creativity on display.  The question on everyone’s lips was – how DID the children from St Saviour’s Primary School get their Lego robot to go so much faster than everyone else’s? The answer….They built the robot using cogs as gears. (Watch it in action!)  It wasn’t quite enough to win, though. That accolade went to Merton Park Primary School.

But what difference did the competition being girls only make? London CLC’s Rowan Roberts, who has been involved in the previous mixed challenges and organised this year’s competition shares her thoughts:

  • The girls had the opportunity to work within the headquarters of a prestigious tech company, which makes the possibility of working in this industry in the future feel accessible to them.
  • One of the judges was a woman who participated in the competition as a child and spoke to them about how the skills they were practising would prepare them for a future in technology. This, and the all-female judging panel in general, was particularly significant in terms of representation.
  • The fact that the event was girls only this year meant that team roles couldn’t be allocated along gender lines; all of the programming challenges as well as the design and presentation elements were completed by girls. Though it is by no means always the case, one way that gender roles can creep into mixed gender teams is the allocation of different roles such as costume design vs tackling the unseen programming challenge. Boys often feel more confident to take on the programming due to a range of factors including exposure to technology at home and general social expectations (find out more about this our blog post and podcast on gender and computing), but this year everything was done by girls – and they rose to the challenge spectacularly.
  • The X-factor – unseen programming – challenge was this year inspired by Greta Thunberg and was all about tackling climate change as we felt it was important to showcase an inspirational young woman who has taken such a proactive role in shaping the future for her generation.
  • It was really interesting to watch the girls play one another’s games, and see how they had injected elements of their own interests into the designs, which seemed to make them particularly exciting and interesting to the other participants

Teachers agreed. Katie Bell from Crown Lane Primary commented, “the competition is great for encouraging the children to think about jobs in technology. Having the support from Afeefa and Howard from IBM  helped give the children an insight about what it is like to work in technology. Visiting the IBM building was also very inspiring.”

Her colleague Ruth Grimwood added, “the amount of teamwork, perseverance, collaboration, problem solving and creativity needed was almost more important than the programming skills they developed.  They all got so much from being part of the project, and having the final day at IBM was really inspiring for them all.”

Find out more about this year’s IBM Robo Challenge in the live blog from the day.

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