Michigan girl power fuels high school robotics growth

As the state’s wildly popular robotics season kicks off this month, organizers are noticing a welcome trend: More girls are joining teams and more are taking on leadership roles.

That’s key in a state that has invested heavily in boosting education in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and where there are many efforts under way to get girls into those fields. Michigan has excelled in robotics, the so-called sport of the mind. The state has 411 teams, far more than the second-highest state of California, which has 258 teams. And Michigan teams have a track record of excelling at the world finals.

In robotics, the growth in female participation is happening at all levels — on coed teams and all-girls teams.

“I’m seeing an uptick,” said Gail Alpert, president of the state’s robotics association. “They’re taking on critical roles. They’re drivers. They’re coaches. They’re mentors.”

The growth is happening amid widespread efforts to get more girls to consider science careers. In January, the Michigan Science Center launched the STEMinista Project to encourage more interest in STEM careers among middle-school girls.

“Research tells us that middle school can be a make or break time in building interest in STEM and STEM careers,” said Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the center.

Girls who sign up to be STEMinistas will have access to special programming at the science center in Detroit and an opportunity to meet and learn from women in STEM careers.

The project is aimed at combating numbers that show that while half the workforce is made up of women, less than 25% of the STEM workforce includes women. Also, statistics compiled for the project show that half the women in STEM careers leave those jobs in the first 10 years.

Numbers compiled by the Michigan Department of Education for STEM programs that are part of career-tech education centers show that a larger percentage of girls are participating, though there is still a wide disparity. Of the 3,851 students enrolled in such programs during the 2012-13 school year, for instance, 528 were girls. In the 2014-15 school year, there were 812 girls out of 5,361 total students.

The push to get more girls into STEM fields is important, said Ashley Jones, 16, a junior at Voyageur College Preparatory in Detroit. Ashley is the captain of the all-girls Mercy Midnight Storm robotics team from Detroit.

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