Celebrating science: Girl Scouts take aim at ‘gender bias’
BY MARI GRIGALIUNAS Correspondent December 20, 2011 9:00PM
Nicole Viz, left, and Mark Wencl, from Comet Creators team at St. Cyril and Methodius in Lemont, participate in the LEGO robotics tournament at the Friendship Center in Country Club Hills, IL on Saturday December 17, 2011. The event was sponsored by the Girls Scouts | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 22, 2012 8:21AM
Being the only girls on a team that makes robotics projects out of Legos doesn’t bother Nicole Viz and Hannah Troy.
“I’m used to being with boys, so it’s not much of a biggie,” Hannah said.
But the two fourth-graders, who are on the team at Saints Cyril and Methodius School in Lemont, are not the norm. Statistics show that females are underrepresented in science and technology both in education and in the work force, and that’s why the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana sponsored a First Lego League tournament Saturday at the Freedom Center in Country Club Hills.
The First Lego League is a robotics program for 9- to 16-year-olds designed to get them excited about science and technology, according to its website. More than 20,000 teams in more than 60 countries have participated.
Hannah’s interest was piqued years ago, but she had to watch her dad coach her big brother for five years, eagerly waiting, before she was old enough to join the Comet Creators Legos team. Her friend Nicole also was able to join just this year.
“Most boys think it’s just building with Legos,” said Nicole, who explained the tournament involves much more than stacking plastic bricks.
Teams start preparing in September, designing and programming Lego robots. At the December tournament, teams attempt five missions they have practiced with their robots. Judges also score them on their teamwork in a question-and-answer session, as well as research projects that they present.
The local Girl Scouts organization sponsored the local tournament in part because their research shows female undergraduates earn just 25 percent of math and computer science degrees and hold only 26 percent of available science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs.
Maria Wynne, Girls Scouts CEO, sees a lost opportunity. A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that 2.8 million STEM jobs will be open in 2018, and Wynne says it will be difficult to fill those jobs without women educated in STEM fields.
“That situation’s not going to change unless something radical happens in the way we are preparing our youth, particularly the girls who have so much talent and who are so easily dissuaded from being part of the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines because of gender bias at an early age,” Wynne said.
One way the Girls Scouts do that is by relating science to everyday life.
“One of our signature programs is ‘Exploring the Final Frontier,’ ” said Vicki King, the Girl Scouts director of new business ventures and alliances. “We address with the girls experiments that help them to understand how some things that are practical every day have their genesis in space travel.”
Rising interest rates?
Comet Creators coach Pat Troy, Hannah’s father, said girls have always been on the team but their numbers have “always definitely been small.”
As a lecturer on computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he said he sees a similar picture in his classes: He’s lucky if a quarter of his students are female.
If that it is to change, it might be because of students such as Kaycee Jackson, Tess Santoro, Lindsay Gragasin and Kylie Knippenberg, sixth-graders at Oak Prairie Junior High in Homer Township. The four honors science students who comprised the Lockport Lego Legends on Saturday left with two awards and an invite to compete at the state level.
Kaycee said her honors class actually has more girls than boys. Another good sign: The Girl Scouts sponsored seven of the 14 teams on hand Saturday.
Troy believes social networking websites such as Facebook could be sparking more girls’ interest in computer science.
“Boys are more likely to be into playing the computer games and getting into technology that way,” he said. “Most of the girls in high school are more interested in the social aspects of it, and once they understand that there are lots of social aspects to (science and technology), then it becomes much more interesting.”
Success can’t hurt, either. His daughter’s team claimed the Project Award on Saturday.
“I think a lot of girls would be good at this,” Hannah said, “but most girls just think, ‘Oh, this is boy stuff.’ ”
Overcoming the stereotype of a researcher doing lonely work, and understanding that STEM fields often involve working in teams and socializing, are other issues the Girl Scouts attempt to tackle year-round.
“We try and bring it to the level of understanding that just about everything you do, everything that’s fun, everything that impacts your life, everything that makes your life easier in a practical aspect has its roots in science, technology, engineering and math,” King said.