Imagine a robot for exploring an ocean world.
What would your robot look like? On November 10, students were quick to respond–scissors and glue, googly eyes and glitter combined to create outlandish portraits of robots designed to transport humans to dark and unexplored corners of our planet via live-streamed video footage and high speed satellite connections.
Fueled by a never-ending stream of snacks and an absurd amount of M&Ms, 20 high school girls joined me for two days of engineering and ocean exploration from dry land.
As a writer, leading a robotics workshop seemed a daunting task. What on Earth do I know about hydraulic systems and force multipliers? The short answer is: nothing. However, digging a little deeper into my experiences over the last two summers reveals I know a bit more about robots than even I imagined–I know enough to help teenagers learn how we explore the ocean.
Regular readers know that since 2017 I’ve spent over just two months at sea on two different scientific vessels, the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada and the Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus. On the Nautilus, robots or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are the workhorses of ocean exploration. ROVs Argus and Hercules work in tandem to help scientists explore deep sea environments, paleoshorelines, and active underwater volcanoes like the Lōihi Seamount. Argus and Hercules collect data and samples while streaming video to a live audience of scientists and fans.
With these two ROVs, humans are able to explore and study places no one has ever visited before, from the safety and comfort of a ship, a classroom, or even a couch in someone’s home. ROV exploration is helping scientists accomplish a range of vital research programs from managing and protecting National Marine Sanctuaries to planning for future space exploration.
When looking for ways of connecting young girls with career pathways in ocean science, I jumped at the chance to partner with my local ChickTech chapter for their annual kickoff event, ChickTech High School. Founded in 2012, this nonprofit is working to provide a pathway into tech fields high school-aged girls.
The ChickTech conference takes place at Portland State University’s Maseeh College of Engineering. Once a year, the college, usually bustling with overworked college students, is taken over by 150 teenage girls from area high schools. The students have no prior experience with technology and engineering; they are referred by their teachers who are asked to look for students who may have some aptitude for STEM fields in spite of their limited exposure.
Each day opened with breakfast and guest speakers. Saturday’s speaker was Oregon State undergraduate Sienna Kaske who spoke about the challenges she’s experienced navigating predominantly white environments in high school and college. She encouraged the girls to find their own communities—whatever communities match and accept their many identities—and work with others to break down the barriers the will undoubtedly encounter in STEAM fields.
Then, the girls headed off into smaller groups for all-day sessions on topics ranging from writing code for video games to designing and 3-D printing jewelry. I led a workshop titled Exploring an Ocean World (with robots!).
Given my non-technical background, I’m profoundly grateful to Derek Wulff from Pathfinders Design and Technology, for donating wonderful wooden kits for our participants. On the first day, students put together cherry pickers and excavators, which helped them learn about hydraulic systems. On day two, teams worked to build robotic arms, which are similar to the Kraft Predator arm used on the ROV Hercules.
In between building with the kits, I spent time guiding workshop participants through how explorers are learning about the ocean with sea floor mapping and robotic exploration. Via Google Meetup, we spoke with Ph.D. student Kaitlyn Becker in her Harvard lab to learn about her squishy robot fingers. The next day, we spoke with Mugdha Flores and Kylie Posternack while they were on board E/V Nautilus off the coast of California.
My presentation (which you can view here) included profiles of many of the women I sailed with in 2018, partnered with information about what those women studied when they were in school. My goal was simple: highlight the many pathways to exciting work in STEAM fields while emphasizing the invaluable role women play in ocean exploration and discovery.
On Sunday evening, the workshop ended with a showcase for parents. Students decorated our classroom and walked their parents, siblings, and friends through our activities over the weekend. As they left with their completed kits and newfound enthusiasm, I answered a litany of questions from parents about more workshops and activities to help carry on with what we started here. A quick search for ROV camps in Portland turned up nothing, which left me wondering if this writer may end up running more robotics workshops in the future.
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.
Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by American Association of University Women
Why Does it Matter if Women Work in Technology and Engineering?
By Jenny Woodman
There is a growing mountain of research and initiatives attempting to figure out when and where young girls are being driven out of technology and engineering. The disproportionately low number of girls entering into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM fields, has generated conferences, after-school programs, summer camps, clubs, and non-profit groups like ChickTech.
Only 12 percent of engineers and 25 percent of computer professionals are women. The American Association of University Women looked at data from multiple sources and found that four out of five of the best STEM careers lie in these two disciplines. Women do have stronger representation in other STEM arenas, particularly health-related fields, but engineering and technology careers can be far more lucrative and offer a more diverse range of opportunities for employment. According to U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2016/2017 median annual income for a computer professional is $114,520 and $91,010 for an engineer.
Equal representation also saves time and money when designing new, innovative systems, and when women aren’t in the room some pretty big oversights might occur. When the first voice-recognition programs were being designed, the developers calibrated them to male voices; the unintended result was that the programs literally couldn’t recognize female voices. While this problem initially only impacted luxury car owners, these types of technologies are often brainstormed and iterated in high end products. Then, they go on to be widely used as the technology becomes more affordable and accessible in other important ways like assistive technologies for people with physical impairments.
Failures to consider diverse users isn’t just an inconvenience. Early airbags in automobiles were designed around the dimensions of adult male bodies, and women and children died as a result. Katherine Shaver, reporting for the Washington Post, notes that women and children are far more likely to suffer more serious injuries in a car accident, because smaller bodies aren’t able to withstand the tremendous forces of a crash. It wasn’t until 2003 that the federal government required manufacturers to use shorter female-sized crash dummies in some testing.
Engineering and tech are realms where job growth is projected to be exponential in the coming years. There are approximately 3.6 million computer jobs; by 2024, U.S. Department of Labor predicts 13 percent growth or an additional half million jobs. If our graduation rates continue as they are today, the U.S. may only be able to fill about 30 percent of those spots.
For those of today’s high school students who, they might be looking at unprecedented opportunities – if they possess the right stuff and barriers are removed.
(This is a revised and updated excerpt from Jenny Woodman’s master’s thesis, Stellar Works: Searching for the Lives of Women in Science)