CICF News / 2012 / May / News Post
May 15, 2012
Robots & Spice: What STEM Girls Are Made Of

On a Saturday morning in May, 118 girls circle tables inside a small gym. Under each table, a red bag is filled with an odd combination of objects including pieces of cardboard, wire hangers, masking tape and a long length of string.

A challenge is presented: Each five- to eight-girl team must construct a robotic arm that can lift a cup full of water, using only the contents of the bag and with just one adult helper.

The event, called “Creating My Bold Future”, is one piece of Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis’s effort to address two key challenges: there are more jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in the United States than qualified people to fill them, and women are underrepresented in the overwhelming majority of STEM fields. Building girls’ excitement and engagement with hands-on STEM-related activities leads to increased confidence and interest in a career in STEM. That goal and Girls Inc.’s programs are supported by several Central Indiana Community Foundation funds and affiliates, including The Efromyson Family Fund, Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, The Indianapolis Foundation and the Summer Youth Program Fund.

One team tests their robotic arm.
Photo courtesy of Girls, Inc. of Greater Indianapolis.


The Gender and Opportunity Gaps

Research shows that there’s an undeniable gender gap in STEM fields, one that begins in childhood and adolescence. Two-thirds of girls and boys say they “like science” in elementary schools, but in middle school and high school girls begin to lose interest. Girls are more likely to take math and science courses and to earn higher grades than boys in high school, but they are also more likely to underestimate their abilities and hold themselves to higher standards of achievement. By the time students reach college, 29 percent of young men plan to major in STEM fields, compared to 15 percent of young women. If biology majors are removed, that number slips to just 5 percent of young women.

The result of this gap can be seen both in numbers and in outcomes for STEM fields. For every 25 engineers, only three are women. This pattern of underrepresentation has far-reaching implications. For example, when automotive crash tests were first developed, the “dummies” created by almost all-male teams were based on men’s bodies only. The resulting safety measures failed to address the physical needs of children and women.

Increasing the number of young women interested in those jobs and degrees can help the United States fill high-paying positions and become more competitive in the international arena. Jobs in STEM fields are projected to increase by 17 percent in the next decade, compared to 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM jobs. Of industrialized nations, the United States ranks twenty-seventh in the proportion of undergraduates earning science and engineering degrees.

Role Models and Robots

“My table group went through about six or seven versions of their robot arm and they never once gave up," says Patricia Maldonado, Dow AgroSciences Chemist, pictured above. "It was so rewarding to see them work through the obstacles until they finally reached their goal.”

In the girl-packed gym, each team has the chance to learn about project management, practice a bit of mechanical engineering and, most important to the planners, become more excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics or, as they are frequently called, STEM careers. Each team brainstorms ideas, debates designs and assigns roles to members before they lay a hand on their materials.

Many of the teams have an adult who can make a real difference in sparking and feeding an interest in STEM fields – a female role model. About half of the teams have a female STEM professional helping to guide and encourage the robot build, courtesy of volunteers from local STEM employers including the IU School of Medicine, Delphi, Dow AgroSciences and Vertellus.

“All I did was give them the tools to feel empowered, step back, and watched them make it all happen!” says Kianna Marzett, a volunteer from Dow AgroSciences.

For the adult volunteers, the opportunity to influence these young learners is a meaningful way to give back. Research shows that, for young women, a mix of role models, technology and hands-on and cooperative projects develop and sustain interest in STEM careers.

“When they told us we were going to build a robot with that stuff, I didn’t think I could do it,” says Maddy, an 11-year old participant. “But we did it, because we used all of our skills together, in a team.”

You can make a difference!

Our mission at Central Indiana Community Foundation is to inspire, support, and practice philanthropy, leadership and service in the community. We do that by: identifying community-wide issues; working with effective not-for-profits to address those needs; and serving as a philanthropic partner to individuals, family foundations and businesses who are interested in making central Indiana a better place for everyone.

To find out how you can play a role in addressing the needs identified in this story (or any of the stories posted at, please contact us at: