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Education / Events / Nonprofits / Robotics / STEM

How to get more young people excited about STEM? Show them the robots

From bootcamps to robotics teams, education orgs used the Pittsburgh Robotics Networks' inaugural Discovery Day as a chance for outreach. We'd say it worked.

Boys and Girls Club of Western PA's Phil Light at Discovery Day 2022. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

From the teens eagerly snapping photos with their phones to the elementary-aged kids who saw the robots as a chance to play, there was no shortage of young people at Pittsburgh Robotics Network’s inaugural Discovery Day this past Wednesday.

Luckily, there were also several groups that had showed up just for them.

Representing orgs ranging from robotics teams to coding bootcamps, leaders from education-based orgs wanted young attendees at the David Lawrence Convention Center to know that STEM is for everyone.

Women make up as little as 7% of the robotics field. That’s why, when Carnegie Mellon University-based Girls of Steel isn’t trying to win competitions, the robotics team is doing outreach as part of its mission to support women and children’s involvement in STEM. At Discovery Day, one of its award-winning robots was front and center, attracting attendees to swing by for a closer look, as Girls of Steel members tabled to show students and their parents what they had to offer.

“Anyone, no matter what age, can build robots and have a good time,” 10th grader Nina Craner, the visual subteam leader at Girls of Steel, told Technical.ly as the team’s prized robot launched a ball into the crowd. “We’ve talked to a lot of people and we talked about STEM in general and they seem really excited. We’ve given away like all of our pins — we ran out within like two hours — so that was really cool.”

A Girls of Steel robot in action at Discovery Day 2022. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

While robotics teams are typically made up of adolescents, coding bootcamp Tech Elevator has a much wider age range. Jennifer O’Brien, Tech Elevator’s Pittsburgh campus director, told Technical.ly that the bootcamp wanted to ensure the public knew about routes into the tech industry beyond a college degree.

“We’re always really excited to meet other minds that are really interested in furthering their education and getting into tech,” O’Brien said, “and being able to connect with those and let them know that there are nontraditional paths into education after high school.”

As for the response the bootcamp’s booth had gotten during Discovery Day, O’Brien said it’d been met with positivity and curiosity. Many of those who had come by didn’t realize there were ways to learn to code that didn’t require four years at the University of Pittsburgh or CMU, she said.

“A lot of people didn’t realize that you didn’t need a four-year degree to get into software development, and so being able to educate those that there are other paths has been something that has been really exciting for us,” she said.

A Discovery Day demo robot. (Photo by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell)

For the Boys and Girls Club of Western PA, Discovery Day was important not only to get students involved in STEM, but also to show them what their options could be after high school.

“We are interested in both learning more as an organization about what’s available and making connections that can help us to put kids into internships at companies in the industry,” said Phil Light, a program manager of robotics and AI for the Boys and Girls Club. The group also aimed for “putting our word out our name out there for other kids and other organizations to learn about partnering with us for joining us.”

The team is still relatively new, Light said, with 2022 being just the second year the Boys and Girls club’s robotics team has entered competitions. Still, the team is looking forward to the next competition they enter and are excited about increasing STEM-related programming for kids of all ages who frequent the Boys and Girls Club. Light admitted that although he was hopeful prior to the event, he didn’t anticipate as much interest as the table and robot got.

“I’ve been surprised by the amount of enthusiasm that they [the attendees] have and interest that they have in it,” Light said. “And I also wish that they brought more stickers because we’ve given away all our stickers.”

Whether the draw was networking, early education or providing adults with new paths to further their education, among the orgs Technical.ly spoke to, there was a consensus: If the PRN holds a Discovery Day in 2023, you can expect to see them there.

“I think it’s a good event,” Craner said. “I’ve seen so many school groups come in and be happy to see all the robots. Everyone seems really excited.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Girls of Steel / Pittsburgh Robotics Network / Tech Elevator

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