UMass Amherst Project Seeks to Engage Middle School Girls in Robotics Learning to Boost Interest in Computer Science and STEM Skills

Florence Sullivan
Florence Sullivan

AMHERST, Mass. – Combining robotics and simulations of natural disasters, a new project led by University of Massachusetts College of Education professor Florence Sullivan and Elms College associate professor of computer science Beryl Hoffman is aimed at spurring interest in computer science among middle school girls in Holyoke.

Funded with $570,697 from the National Science Foundation, Girls Involved in Robotics Learning Simulations (GIRLS) will serve students who attend Girls Inc. of Holyoke and the Boys and Girls Club of Holyoke during vacations and summer camps, says Sullivan.

Participating girls will work with co-robots—machines that help humans accomplish tasks­—in a simulated relief response to a natural disaster, a scenario that Sullivan expects will resonate with girls whose families were affected by last year’s Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico.

“Many middle school students in Holyoke are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora and still have family and connections to the island,” she says. “We know that girls are socialized to be interested in helping professions. By focusing on innovations that help people we can potentially attract more girls into computer science and robotics.”

Ultimately, the researchers hope to gain a deeper insight into the role of immersive simulations in encouraging girls’ interest and learning in co-robotics.

As the girls work with wheeled robots and flying drones, they will also explore the social, economic, ethical and legal implications of robotic technology, Sullivan says. “We want the girls to understand how these can be used by first responders, but also to understand the context for their use. Drones are an important tool for assessing disaster scenes and distributing first aid supplies.”

But technology can be manipulated for other uses, adds Sullivan, noting the increasing use of weaponized drones by the U.S. and other countries. “We believe it’s important for students to wrestle with the ethical considerations surrounding technology and to have a curriculum that’s balanced.”

In the first year of the grant, the pilot program and curriculum will be developed by members of the GIRLS project team, Andrew Pasquale and Lissie Fein of Holyoke Codes, a community partnership that provides opportunities for kids to be involved in coding, robotics and technology. Hoffman, will develop the assessment tools for Project GIRLS. The project team also includes Ricardo Poza, an education doctoral student who last year piloted some of the Project GIRLS ideas at a high school near Boston.

Between 40-60 girls will begin taking part in the program in winter or spring of 2020, followed by a summer program, which Sullivan expects will run for two years. Boys will be included in the second year of the program to allow the researchers to assess how their presence and participation impacts the experience of the girls.

As the program grows and evolves, says Sullivan, “We want to develop a curriculum that can be widely distributed. Our results will be published and also shared through a project website.”