ORONO, Maine — All they knew when they left school Thursday morning was that they were going on a girls-only, science-related field trip to the University of Maine campus.
Dedham School seventh-grader Jordan Theriault, for one, was skeptical about the day ahead.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to be fun or not,” Theriault said. “I heard we were going to learn about careers so I thought it was going to be boring.”
Yet a few hours later, Theriault and her classmates watched intently as Lego robots they had programmed zipped along the floor of a UMaine classroom.
The girls had learned how to program the robots during an afternoon session of “Expanding Your Horizons,” a daylong conference geared toward providing girls with opportunities to explore different fields and careers in science, engineering, mathematics and biology.
More than 500 girls from 25 middle schools statewide attended the conference, which took place around the campus. Other workshops included water wheel design, bridge building, the science of animal skulls and pelts, and an analysis of lobster health.
The Dedham students were paired up with Ellsworth Middle School students for the robotics workshop.
Dedham School health teacher Beth Handley intentionally didn’t tell her students the purpose of the conference before the group arrived at UMaine.
“I wanted them to be excited and not to make a predetermination of whether they were going to like it or not,” Handley said. “I want them to see science and math is available to them, and not only the traditional science and math for girls, such as nursing, and [that it’s available] in a fun way.”
The groups from Ellsworth and Dedham seemed to have a good time as they tested the computer programs they wrote for the Lego robots. Their task, as assigned by instructor Tom Bickford, was to make the two-wheeled robot roll across the floor from one line to another four feet away.
Once that task was accomplished, the groups were instructed to make the robots roll the four feet, turn around, and then roll back. The groups that finished those tasks were challenged to program their robots to roll all the way around a plastic storage bin.
Students cheered when they completed the tasks, while others whose robots didn’t roll as expected hurried back to their computers to make changes in their programs.
Encouraging students to go into engineering and computer fields is something that should be done as early as possible, Bickford said.
“At this point, the U.S. isn’t where it should be in terms of producing engineers or computer programmers,” said Bickford, who is the director of the nonprofit, Orono-based Maine Robotics, which offers camps and instruction sessions for youngsters. “It takes a long time to make an engineer or computer programmer.”
Theriault might consider that route as a career, but Thursday she was more concerned with getting her robot to roll around the plastic container.
“It was [more fun] than I thought,” Theriault said as the workshop ended. “I learned more about robotics and how stuff works, more than I knew before. It would be fun [to do robotics as a job], but it would be a lot of work.”