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Let girls play with robots to boost their confidence, study says

Researchers at the University of Washington have found that letting young children experiment with programming robots reduces the gender gap in interest and self-confidence relating to programming.


Study after study has revealed the extent to which women are underrepresented in STEM fields. Girls have been shown to start losing confidence in their mathematical, engineering and computing abilities at a very early age, so efforts to encourage more young women to consider STEM careers often target school students.


This promising University of Washington study suggests that fun activities which allow children to do some simple programming themselves could play a huge role in boosting girls’ confidence in their programming abilities.


The study, carried out by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science (I-LABS), involved nearly 100 six-year-old girls and boys. The children were assigned to three groups: a group of children who programmed robots, a group which played a storytelling game, and a group which did not have an activity to complete. All three groups were then given a survey to complete, which asked them about their opinion of technology and their beliefs about whether girls and boys had different abilities.


The children who tried programming were given a choice of animal-like robots. They began by following instructions to control the robot’s movement and then chose their own commands for the robot. Programming is “when you tell a computer or a robot or a phone what to do,” the researchers explained to the children.

“As a society, we have these built-in beliefs that are pushing boys toward certain activities more than girls. So our thought was, if you give equal experiences to boys and girls, what happens?” Master said. “We found that if you give them access to the same opportunities, then girls and boys have the same response – equal interest and confidence.”


Compared with their peers, the children who played with the robot showed significantly different attitudes towards programming. The activity appeared to reduce the gender gap in technology interest by 42 per cent and the gap in self-confidence by 80 per cent.


This shows that there is an opportunity to ignite girls’ interest and confidence in computer science by beginning to introduce concepts and skills early on, said Dr Allison Master of I-LABS, who led the study. She suggests that the activities could be done in classrooms, after-school clubs, at home and at summer camps.


“The most important finding is that we brought the girls’ interest and motivation in STEM up to the level of the boys,” said Professor Andrew Meltzoff, a renowned psychologist and co-director of I-LABS. “This was a big impact for a brief, well-designed intervention. How long will it last? That’s an important question for future scientific experiments.”


Despite boosts to individual self-confidence, the robot activity did not shift stereotypes held by the children about whether girls or boys are better at programming. The study authors suggest that meeting women in these fields would be necessary to shift these deeply embedded stereotypes.


“Stereotypes get built up in our heads from many different sources and experiences, but perhaps if we give girls more experience doing these kinds of activities, that will give them more resources to resist those stereotypes,” Dr Master said. “They might be able to say, ‘I can still be good at this and enjoy it, despite the cultural stereotypes.’”




By Hilary Lamb
Published Friday, April 28, 2017

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