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ANU Robogals rally for gender equality

The ANU chapter of international organisation Robogals is inspiring young women across the Canberra region to get involved in engineering, science and technology. AMELIA DALE sat down with the group to talk robots, gender equality and the real world of engineering.

Even in a country as progressive as Australia, engineering and technology are fields where the traditional "boys club" reigns supreme. According to an Engineers Australia 2012 study, just 13.8 per cent of tertiary engineering students in Australia are women, and they make up only 10.9 per cent of the overall engineering labour force.

These numbers have remained largely static since the 1990s. In 2008, a University of Melbourne student named Marita Cheng decided to do something about this – and Robogals was born.

Yanny Li, Monika Berlot and Stephanie Nguyen from Robogals ANU
Yanny Li, Monika Berlot and Stephanie Nguyen from Robogals ANU Photo: Supplied

"The aim of Robogals is to inspire women or young girls into engineering, technology and science, because I think a lot of girls think that those are fields they can't get into. We make them realise that it's possible," Robogals member Monika Berlot explains.

Although the group started out small, it now has chapters in more than 20 locations across the world.

I made the trip to the ANU's leafy Acton campus to sit down with Berlot, Abdullah Sikder, Yanny Li and Stephanie Nguyen from the Robogals' Canberra chapter.

All engineering students, and all passionate about imparting their love of the subject to the next generation, they tell me that the root cause of this shortage of female engineers lies in primary and secondary education. Girls have almost no exposure to engineering throughout their schooling, so when it comes time to decide what to study at university, it doesn't seem like a viable option to them.

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Robogals addresses this by targeting girls in grades 5 to 7 with fun robotics workshops.

"We go to schools and teach the girls how to use these robots, which are very easy to program," Sikder explains.

"We give them hypothetical situations and they have to use math and engineering to solve these problems. They think they've just done a fun challenge, but really it uses a lot of maths and physics, and that's engineering."

The robots they use are actually pretty cute, and they come with simplified, colourful programming software that's a lot of fun to use. Sikder says that often the students are having so much fun they don't realise how much maths and physics they're actually using to complete the challenges.

"We let the kids have a taste of engineering in a hands-on way using the senses," Berlot adds.

"We want them to know that engineering is more than just maths and physics – we want them to know that it's a lot of designing and a lot of problem solving, a lot of teamwork and communication and that kind of thing, which we think is really important as well."

These robotics workshops make engineering seem like a much more accessible field for young women, and Robogals also follows up by targeting high school girls with talks and workshops right at the time when they're deciding what tertiary studies to pursue.

"Most people in high school and college have no idea what they want to do," Li says.

"So before they decide what degree they're doing, they get a chance to taste real-world problem solving. It's not just programming, we also talk about engineering in general and what uni looks like."

"I know when I was in high school I never got a chance to do anything like this – it just wasn't part of the curriculum," Berlot adds.

Robogals ANU also conducts rural school visits. They are currently busy preparing for a trip to the south coast area that will include five schools.

"When we talk to rural schools, often an issue for them is that they don't think it's possible to come to university. We give them a bit of confidence in a sense, and obviously show them all about engineering," Berlot says.

Robogals ANU is part of the wider Robogals Asia Pacific group, which encompasses chapters across Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and the Philippines.

Every year the Robogals chapters come together for a conference to train new members, set new goals and discuss what each group has been doing in their home town. Li tells me that their group has just returned from the 2014 conference in Perth, and are now bursting with new ideas.

"It's been a good chance to see other chapters, see what they're doing and learn from others. Some chapters are doing really great things, and we're looking forward to that this year," she says.

Robogals ANU is hoping to purchase some new, more up-to-date robots for their workshops, but they rely on sponsorships from companies in the engineering and technology sectors for all their funds, and are currently seeking new sponsors.

When I ask the ladies (and men) of Robogals what it is they love about engineering, Berlot sums it up perfectly.

"The really great thing about engineering is that it's flexible and broad," she says.

"You can travel with it, and it really helps the wider community, not just one city – it helps the whole world in so many ways."

canberra.robogals.org.au