1 kit, 4 months,157 countries: Robotics competition gets girls excited for STEM

Students convened in Washington, D.C., this week for the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge. Meet some of the girls from Egypt, Liberia, and Ghana who came ready to compete. 

Ritu Prasad/Medill News Service
The colorfully dressed girls of Team Ghana pose by their robot during their lunch break on the final day of the competition, July 18.

Growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, Yomna Ahmed Rageb remembers a childhood full of Legos. So when her parents suggested she get involved with robotics, it felt natural to trade her plastic bricks for metal gears.

But when she first joined a robotics team as an 8-year-old, Yomna found she was the only girl in her group – and that the boys weren’t keen on listening. “They're underrating my thoughts, I don't know what to do!” Yomna recalls telling her parents after frustrating sessions with the boys. “Sometimes I'm right, and sometimes I'm not, but they just don't accept that there's a girl who can [do this].” 

Now, eight years later, Yomna is one of 830 teenagers, including 209 girls, who showed off their robotics skills in Washington, D.C., over the past three days at the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, an Olympic-style robotics competition for high-school students from around the world. But on a broader scale, these girls are on the front lines of a global movement of young women seeking to shatter gender barriers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“A lot of countries underrate girls so much,” Yomna says emphatically. “Girls are just like boys, they can do whatever they want with their minds. They can create the future as well.

Learning to 'save the world'

Yomna's story is likely familiar to many young women with an interest in STEM fields, both when they’re first starting out and later as they try to enter the workforce. 

Globally only 28.8 percent of STEM researchers are women, even though more women hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In the United States, women account for 15 percent of the engineering workforce, despite holding 50.3 percent of science and engineering degrees, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project. A 2016 UNESCO survey of 110 countries showed that just 44 percent of women with STEM degrees went on to receive doctorates in related fields, a figure that has remained static since 2008.

Those gender disparities were readily apparent at this weekend's competition, where girls made up just one-quarter of all challengers. And, although there were numerous all-male teams, only six were comprised exclusively of girls. 

For many of the participating students, gaining a toehold in the world of robotics is about more than tipping the gender scales.

“We women, we need to make a difference in the world, we need to make a change,” says Gregline Kumba Alatt, one of two girls on Liberia’s seven-person team. “I want for all girls to stand on their feet so that we can join together to make the world a better place to live.”

In Gregline’s home country of Liberia, a 2015 UNESCO report found that only 33 percent of women 15 years and older are literate, compared to 62 percent of men in the same age range. Some 77 percent of girls enrolled in primary school end up attending secondary school as well, but women all but disappear from Liberia’s statistics on higher education.

For Gregline, 16, her passion for robotics stems from her desire to “save the world.”

“I feel that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the key tools to change the world,she explains, leaning over her team’s table. Their robot, crowned with a tiny Liberian flag, rests beside her.

Gregline dreams of becoming a computer engineer, and she says that participating in a STEM event on a global scale has only increased her ambitions, adding that she’s “delighted” that she’s seen so many girls involved.

When asked what it’s like being around so many young women, she puts it simply: “It’s something good.”

The clean water challenge

FIRST Global has designed the annual competition to not only inspire young people around the world to get involved in robotics, but also to think creatively about developing solutions to real-life challenges. Each tournament challenge will focus on a different theme selected from the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering, a list of pressing issues identified by national engineering academies in the United States, United Kingdom, and China. This year’s theme was access to clean water. Armed with a software and robot kit, the students competed to create the most efficient purification system. In lieu of getting wet, the robots sorted beach balls – blue (clean) and orange (contaminated) – to prove their filtration capabilities.

Ritu Prasad/Medill News Service
All 157 teams march out with their flags during FIRST Global's opening ceremony on Sunday, July 16.

For many of the participants, the challenge of providing access to potable water resonated strongly. 

“Getting clean water is a problem in parts of my country,” says Charlene Mena Yaa Owu, a 17-year-old from Ghana. “When the waters are dirty, people can’t bathe, they can’t wash, they can't do anything to get ready for school, so it’s deterring everything that we do.”

Women in Africa bear 90 percent of the responsibility when it comes to gathering water, and in some countries walk an hour to find a safe source, according to the United Nations. For young girls this often takes time away from education.

Globally, 884 million people still lack access to a basic drinking-water source, while more than 2 billion drink water that has been contaminated by feces, according to the World Health Organization. As a result of climate change and population growth, WHO estimates that half of the world will live in water-stressed areas by 2025. Engineering innovations like desalination and recycling wastewater will likely be key in addressing water scarcity.

And for Charlene, her dream of becoming an engineer comes from her desire to help “fix” problems, like not having access to clean drinking water. “When I was little I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to save people,” she explains, excitedly. “Then when I started fixing things, I started loving robotics even more because helping people is good; curing people is good; but fixing things that can help cure people is better.” 

Proudly sporting a pin with the words #LikeAGirl, Charlene is one of six members of Ghana’s all-girl team from the Archbishop Porter Girls Secondary School in Takoradi. Wearing brightly colored traditional tunics, the girls are proud of their presence as one of the few fully female teams. 

“Being an all girls team means a lot to me right now, because it means that it has given us equality,” says Charlene. “Some teams are all boys, but then we are all doing the same thing. It's giving us power, courage. We're right now very bold.” 

Although 40 percent of girls in Ghana still lack access to secondary school, their enrollment numbers are quickly gaining on the boys, according to UNESCO. However, the gap is large when it comes to female participation in STEM, UNESCO says, citing a Ghana school district where of the 855 girls enrolled in high school only 29 are pursuing STEM subjects.

Emmanuella Baaba Koomson, Charlene’s teammate, says young women in Ghana don’t pursue STEM because they aren’t aware that it is a valid career option. “They are scared, because they don’t get the support they need,” Koomson says. “Not a lot of girls are into science, so to be chosen to represent my country in an international competition was really great.” 

Emmanuella hopes that her team’s presence at the robotics competition will help raise awareness that girls can be involved in STEM – and have fun doing it.

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