Girl Powered: Fueling the Fire for Girls in STEM Through Research and Mentoring

by STEMconnector


I have a confession. Despite enjoying math and science early in my education, I struggled with the subjects in high school. A nagging suspicion grew. I wasn’t good at math or science. I had adopted a well-worn preconceived notion about math and science – you have to be innately good at these subjects to succeed. Luckily, I have been surrounded by amazing women and men who shattered this notion. As a mentor and coach of a robotics team for the past five years, I have witnessed the transformation that occurs when you introduce girls early and often to STEM. As girls attend STEM events such as Girl Powered, they go from curious observers on the sidelines to confident participants as they engage in fun, hands-on projects.

Now, a new study from Tufts University is fueling my fire to get more girls involved in STEM and to showcase the power of mentoring in achieving this goal.

The study, commissioned by The Robotics Education and Competition (REC) Foundation and VEX Robotics, examined why males outnumber females in STEM. Data revealed that while females excel in collaborating with team members, they lack confidence in pursuing leadership roles on robotics teams. One implication, according to the study’s authors, is that female students have less experience with robotics engineering than boys by the time they enter high school. The authors suggest that females should be exposed to STEM activities as early as possible in their school years within a safe, comfortable space with female mentors.

While it’s disheartening that female students lack confidence, it’s inspiring to know the solution: providing young girls with mentors and engagement in STEM activities early in primary school will help us increase the number of females pursuing STEM careers.

I’m also inspired to share new data from The REC Foundation that says the solution is already working. Female participation in VEX Robotics has increased steadily from 23 percent in 2016 to 37 percent in 2018 since we launched Girl Powered in 2016. Girl Powered is a global initiative aimed at increasing girls’ access to and confidence in STEM careers. Students experience the excitement of building robots, testing their problem-solving skills and meeting female STEM mentors at Girl Powered workshops, hosted in community venues across the U.S. and the world including Google headquarters.

Here’s how the Girl Powered experience works:

Curiosity – Girl Powered workshops spark new wonder in STEM. Girls look around and see girls and boys engaging in hands-on projects and wonder if they can get involved in an activity.

Exploration – Once students are curious, they start exploring their personal interests in STEM. Suddenly, girls are rolling up their sleeves and building a spaghetti and marshmallow tower. While they are having fun and making new friends, girls learn that building this delicate structure is a metaphor for the hidden assumptions of project-based learning.

Confidence – After engaging in fun activities and meeting real scientists and mentors, students express interest in joining a robotics team and letting the games continue.  

At Girl Powered events, attendees also meet real engineers and scientists and ask them questions about their career experiences, such as Michelle Johnson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pennsylvania; Hope Shimabuku, Director of the Texas Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; and Vivian Chu, Ph.D., Co-Founder and CTO of Diligent Robotics. After this experience, the girls are even more excited to build and launch a popsicle stick catapult, create an overflowing DIY lava lamp and get behind the wheel to drive real competition robots.

My mentoring experience with Girl Powered and VEX Robotics has taught me that even the slightest preconceived notions will hinder progress for girls in STEM. We need to work together to turn misconceptions into teaching moments, and spur more opportunities for talented females in STEM careers. Indeed, they have motivated me to become more passionate than ever to get more girls involved in STEM.

Girl Powered offers free materials to aid mentors in creating experiences where students feel supported in their exploration of STEM and robotics. To download mentoring materials, visit https://www.girlpowered.com/workshops/.

Vicki Grisanti championed the creation of the Girl Powered initiative, which was launched in 2016 by The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation and VEX Robotics. She also is a VEX robotics coach and Girl Powered mentor.  Vicki has dedicated more than 15 years of her career to marketing communications roles that advance STEM education. When she is not tinkering with robots, Vicki is serving as senior director of marketing and communications for The REC Foundation. The REC Foundation  increases student interest and involvement in STEM by engaging students in hands-on, affordable, and sustainable robotics engineering programs.