Computer Science, Innovation, Robotics, STEM

Co-Robots for CompuGirls: Teaching Girls to be Tech Social Innovators

co-robots for compugirls good

Earlier this month, we wrapped up five weeks of teaching Latina girls in an under-resourced school district in Phoenix, how to program humanoid robots in Python, and to use these robots to address needs and create solutions for their communities.  My colleague, Dr. Kimberly Scott, and her team (Scott Shrake, Robin Baskin McNulty, Becky Beucher) at Arizona State University, along with Dr. Angelicque Blackmon and I, are conducting educational research into using culturally responsive pedagogy to teach girls humanoid robot programming along with social justice activism.  Why?  We want girls to be empowered to make changes in their communities and to solve problems that they see as important to themselves, families, and friends.  Although, a more extensive summary of the research results will be given in a future publications, I’d like to share a few highlights that I observed.

The Girls Learned to Use Tech to Address Social Issues

Not only did the girls learn to program the humanoid robots to talk, move, and listen using Choreographe and the Python programming languages, but they also learned how to use robots to address issues in their communities that were important to them.  During the five weeks, the students learned how to conduct research related to social injustices and how to address them through activism.  One team programmed their robot to inform people who could help the homeless.  Another team showed how the robot could be used to help those who have been affected by cyberbullying and to work to prevent suicide.  Two of the girls used their robot to act out a short skit to show how people, and even robots, can prejudge people based on their skin color or gender.  As a humanoid robotics and AI researcher, I was impressed that they had the insight to realize that humanoid robots are programmed by people, and if we are not careful, the robots will carry the same unconscious biases of their programmers.

Other issues they addressed using humanoid robots included domestic violence and the disparity in the numbers of women in STEM fields.  They had a very unique idea on how to deal with bias in technology interviews that involve women.

Addressing the Lack of Women in STEM

One team of young ladies conducted their research on the lack of women in STEM.  After providing an insightful presentation of their research, they demonstrated their novel solution to addressing unconscious bias in interviews.  They programmed their humanoid robots to act as avatars for the interviewer and the interviewee.  The humans interacted with each other via their humanoid robot avatars.  During the girl’s presentation, they showed how the interviewer and interviewee’s were separated by a wall but their humanoid robots could see each other and talk or respond on behalf of their human operator.  At the end of their skit, the girls who played the interviewer meets the girls who was the interviewee and exclaims, “I never guessed that you were a girl.”

The Girl Who Didn’t Raise Her Hand, Now Shines

You remember the girl I wrote about that didn’t raise her hand? The quiet girl who at the beginning of our program didn’t have the confidence to raise her hand to indicate that she believed she could be successful learning to program, shined in both her programming and her robot solution created.  I won’t name her because I don’t want her to be embarrassed but let me just say that it was a joy to see her, along with all of the young ladies grow in just five weeks.  We are grateful for the National Science Foundation funding our research through the National Robotics Initiative and for the Intel Foundation’s contributions to expand our outreach to help more girls and boys, regardless of their race or socio-economic status, grow in their confidence and skills in using technology to solve problems they face in their communities.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D. is Professor and John P. Raynor Distinguished Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Marquette University. Co-Robots for CompuGirls is funded by The National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative. His past and current members of the Marquette Co-Robots for CompuGirls team include Elise Russell, Matthew Morris, Adrianna Williams, Ryan Walsh, Adam Stroud, and Kellen Carey.


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