Not just freaks and geeks and guys

Think of the word “scientist” and the word “mad” seems to pop up unbidden onto the mental viewing screen. Dr. Frankenstein. Dr. Strangelove. Dr. Evil. That’s exactly the image of scientists that a new program for middle school girls wants to combat.

“The stereotype of wild-haired, wild-eyed people doing science is just that — a stereotype,” said Christine Massey, director of Pennlincs, an educational outreach program of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science. “Lots of interesting people all over the world do science, not just socially inept nerds.”

That, at least, is what a Pennlincs project, Agents for Change: Robotics for Girls, funded by an $875,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is trying to prove.

In cooperation with two Philadelphia School District clusters, one in University City, the other in Northeast Philly, Robotics for Girls will focus particularly on trying to get middle school girls and minorities to become interested in science. Women, lower socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in many high-tech fields.

In programs during school, after school and in intensive summer institutes, kids will learn about hands-on scientific problem-solving — by building robots. The program, which began its funding last month, will also instruct teachers on how to teach with robotics kits, and it will serve as a research tool on how to get different groups interested in science.

The goal, Massey said, after some trial and error, is to end up with a model for a national program.

The robotics project is an outgrowth of a successful cooperative venture between the Penn robotics lab and Baldi Middle School’s robotics club. The Baldi students approached the lab because they wanted to learn the computer language C++ in order to program their robots.

“Kids will take on technology in service of solving a problem they have claimed as theirs,” Massey said. “They eat it up.”

Many children in the robotics project will have had little, if any, exposure to robotics. “The nice thing about robotics is there’s a lot of different kits that come in different levels of difficulty,” Massey explained. “They can get progressively more complicated to the point that they are considerably sophisticated.”

Students will take field trips to Penn’s GRASP (General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception) lab to see how working scientists tackle problems. “Kids can take what they’re doing with simpler robots and see the same ideas played out in a more sophisticated way,” Massey said.

One goal of the project is to make sure young students don’t prescreen themselves from a technical career — some students find that by the time they reach college, they’re already too far behind in science and math skills.

“Often math is the gatekeeper,” Massey said. “Kids don’t see the point in taking math, so they’re off the track. Past that point they never get back on.”

Massey believes that most people can achieve more in science and math than they think. “Science and math have been treated in this country as elite subjects,” she said. “There’s an idea that you have to have a special kind of brain to do science. We want to show kids that’s not true.”


Originally published on February 3, 2000