Negative perceptions don’t deter girls on Marysville Arts and Technology High School’s robotics team

MARYSVILLE — It was first period this past Monday morning at Arts and Technology High School.

Students in a Spanish class were sitting in groups, chatting and working at the relaxed pace that often comes with a substitute teacher’s supervision.

Junior Madyson Yetter took the opportunity to talk more girls into joining the robotics team, the “Pengbots.”

One of the boys in the class interrupted: “Girls don’t like robots.”

Madyson countered. There are, in fact, five girls on the robotics team.

“Do they all have glasses and look like geeks?” he asked.

Stereotypes such as these are what researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning &Brain Sciences have been studying.

People assume more women science teachers and mentors are the key to getting girls interested engineering and computer science, but new research shows that’s not necessarily true. It’s inaccurate stereotypes that are turning girls away from technical careers, said Allison Master, a researcher who worked with other UW experts on two recent studies.

They tested hundreds of high school students in the greater Seattle area, including some in Snohomish County. The teens often described a computer scientist as a geeky, socially-awkward guy who is smart and skilled in technology, Master said. Many also revealed they believe girls have a lesser aptitude for math and science than boys.

The researchers found that negative stereotypes can be a strong deterrent for girls considering computer science and engineering. And a teacher’s gender only makes a difference when girls believe the stereotypes.

Crisante Williams, a freshman website developer for Marysville’s Pengbots, said women science and math mentors do prove that girls can succeed in those fields, but a teacher’s gender doesn’t matter to her.

“I don’t like going into classes where the teacher — male or female — doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” she said.

Crisante, 15, said she was encouraged by her parents at an early age to get interested in “geeky” stuff, such as computers, anime, comic books and robotics. Now, she finds it easy to ignore stereotypes. She sees no shame in getting her geek-on.

For others, stereotypes and the perception that girls aren’t as good at math and science can take hold as early as second grade, Master said. But, it simply isn’t true.

Boys typically score higher on certain parts of some standardized tests, but high school girls generally get better grades in math and science, Master said. The research found that it’s important to get girls interested these subjects early and tell them the stereotypes aren’t accurate.

For Madyson, 17, hearing girls weren’t good at math and science made her doubt her abilities. When she joined the robotics team as a shy freshman, it was intimidating. Mostly boys were doing the “heavy-lifting,” building and programming the robots. But Madyson didn’t want to sit on the sidelines.

She started building robots, but the boys ignored her ideas. So she got louder. Now, she’s the team manager and one of the elite few who get to operate the robots during competitions.

“Being on the drive team with all the guys can be difficult,” she said. “It’s like a bro connection type of thing.”

With five girls and seven guys, the Pengbots ratio is closer to equal than most teams, said coach and teacher Katherine Jordan. The team successfully built a 6-foot, 4-inch, joystick-controlled robot that picks up and stacks totes for this year’s FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition.

The UW researchers found that it’s important for girls to feel like they belong in order to succeed. Jordan said she has ways of making that happen for her students.

“As soon as you can get a tool in their hand and goggles on their face, they don’t go anywhere,” she said.

As someone who faced “but you’re a girl stereotypes” as she pursued her own career, Jordan encourages students to take advanced math and sciences. She also pushes the girls on her robotics team to become leaders in the male-dominated competition. She’s preparing them for college and the workforce.

Women in the computer science field weren’t always as underrepresented as they are today. In the 1980s, stereotypes started to take hold, Master said. Personal computers were advertised as gaming toys for boys. Meanwhile, movies, such as “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Real Genius,” portrayed computer scientists as geeky guys.

Statistics from the National Center for Women &Information Technology show that only 18 percent of computer science degrees in 2012 went to women in the U.S. That’s down from 37 percent in 1985.

Master said fields that require similar skill sets but lack the stereotypes, such as mathematics, chemistry and biology are gaining women.

Madyson doesn’t plan to let stereotypes stop her. She wants to build airplanes and use programming to solve global problems.

“I absolutely love science. And that’s what I’m good at,” she said “I’m doing something that could change the world.”

More women could be making similar career choices, if the stereotypes were diminished by broadening the image of engineers and computer scientists, Master said. Madyson wants to start by sharing a new perspective with her Spanish classmate.

“I want to get all the girls on the robotics team together and say ‘See we don’t all have glasses,’ ” she said.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

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