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< Contents ERCIM News No. 53, April 2003

Robots and Girls - A Promising Alliance

by Monika Müllerburg and Ulrike Petersen

Education and training are important requirements for the future abilities of a society. This especially concerns key areas of technology such as information science and the engineering disciplines. We notice a decreasing interest from students in technical professions, and as a consequence there is a remarkable lack of junior scientists. If we want to convince more young people to choose technical professions, we need to change the teaching program. Girls and women in particular need to be addressed.

Germany is falling behind its European neighbours in terms of the participation of women in science. There is a lack of female students, particularly in technical disciplines. In general, women avoid studying topics like engineering, electronics and physics; in 2000, the quota of female students was only about 17%. Women are more attracted by interdisciplinary topics such as architecture, multimedia and environmental engineering.

It is evident that engineering and computer science are key professions for the European economy. It is necessary that women should participate in the creation of future technologies, and our society must seriously consider the question of whether it can afford not to utilise the potential talents of women.

To increase the number of women in these fields in the long run we must first address girls. Education and training must inspire girls to take up technical subjects. Our experience shows that edutainment robotics meets with great interest, and that learning by doing is a promising way of raising the appeal of technical subjects, especially to girls and women.

No sweet without sweat.

Beginners at German universities in technical courses of studies (year: 2000). Source: Federal Statistical Office Germany, Wiesbaden 2001.
Beginners at German universities in technical courses of studies (year: 2000). Source: Federal Statistical Office Germany, Wiesbaden 2001.

This is one of the main aims of the project 'Roberta - Girls Discover Robots'. The name 'Roberta' was chosen as an association for a female robot. The project will establish courses of instruction to design, construct and program robots. Particular attention will be paid to gender aspects. The challenge is to define topics which meet the special interest of girls. For example, since girls are more interested in the solution of environmental problems, we will deal with subjects that simulate natural phenomena. We know by experience that these topics will interest boys as well.

The 'Roberta' team will develop didactic measures, teaching and studying papers and make them available for teachers and tutors. Web-based background information and electronic documents will be included. In addition to traditional teaching, the girls will do practical work with robotic kits. They will learn to design and to construct robots, to write programs and to combine these activities within a system development process.

Both the papers and the courses will be evaluated, which will help to improve the results. Special attention will be put on female views and approaches to stress the gender quality of the project.

Regional centres will be established to support the distribution of the results beyond the end of the project. Teachers are invited to join these and to exchange their experiences. The aim is to run a national network, which will ensure the further progress of the development of gender criteria.

'Roberta' is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Partners include universities, a technical museum, a school board, a grammar school, the Centre for Women in Information Society and Technology and the LEGO Educational Division.

Project 'Roberta' is a part of a broader initiative running at the Fraunhofer Institute for Autonomous Intelligent Systems (AIS). Edutainment robotics is one of the business fields at the AIS, where robot construction kits are developed. The idea is to use robots and robotic construction kits to teach engineering know-how.

The 'Roberta' team is interested in cooperation with similar initiatives in other European countries and would like to exchange experiences and define joint activities in the field of education based on robots.


Please contact:
Monika Müllerburg, FhG-AIS
Tel: +49 2241 14 2428