October 17, 2018
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How a robotic flower pot can help shatter gender stereotypes

During school vacation week, budding young scientists gathered at the Skidompha Public Library in Damariscotta and got to work building high-tech flower pots that would electronically water themselves every 24 hours.

But before the participants could wire up and install the motherboards that would act as the brains of their creations, they first had to make their flower pots from scratch, using clay, paint and sparkly decorations to give them a little personal flair. It was all part of the experience intended by Gizmo Garden, a volunteer-run Maine organization that supports gender-balanced technology education and that organized the RoboPot workshop.

Katie Shaw, a 14-year-old from Westport Island, looked excited but a little skeptical as she got to work loosening up her clay.

“My twin brother told me, ‘you don’t know anything about electronics,’” she confided to the group.

“That’s the best part — you don’t have to,” Christina Dorman, the Maine State Library’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) librarian, replied.

Shaw was one of 17 middle school students — eight girls and nine boys — who built the fancy flower pots at the library during two workshops last week. Judy Silver, who founded Gizmo Garden with her husband, Bill Silver, four years ago, said that the gender breakdown they saw last week at Skidompha sounded just about right.

“We’re looking for parity,” she said, adding that they really want to tackle the problem of gender balance in STEM fields.

There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that the Silvers, both scientists, know that Maine is in ‘desperate need’ of computer scientists and engineers, she said. Maine companies currently are having to search out of state to fill vacancies in these areas, so all students should be encouraged to pursue STEM studies — not just boys.

The second reason is a little more complicated. Women were among the first computer programmers in the early 20th century, and until the mid-1980s, the percentage of women studying computer science was accelerating. Many pioneers in the field were women, including Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who in the first half of the 19th century published notes which sketched out several early computer programs and is widely considered to be the founder of modern computing. Other notable women computer scientists and programmers include Grace Hopper, a math professor who joined the Navy Reserve during World War II and found a way to program computers with words rather than numbers.

However, in 1984, the numbers of female college students interested in computer science changed, Judy Silver said. Researchers say that the drop-off happened at the same time that personal computers began appearing in American homes. Those computers were mostly marketed to men, she said. At the same time, movies such as War Games and Weird Science came out, with plots that featured nerdy teenage boys who use their technology skills to triumph and win the girl.

“These huge stereotypes evolved, where geek culture became a bro culture,” she said. “It doesn’t have to do with ability, and it doesn’t have to do with how much girls enjoy it.”

Enter Gizmo Garden. The Silvers and others who work with the company have developed programs, such as the self-watering flower pots, that are intended to appeal to girls as well as boys.

“We’re not ignoring boys,” she said. “We do want to shatter the cultural stereotypes. We do programs that are different. We are not doing battles, races or building contests. We have done parades, water parks and robotic flower pots.”

And the reception has been great.

“It’s been fabulous from the girls, and fabulous from the parents of girls,” she said.

Some Gizmo Garden robotic creations are even helping a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer science professor learn how to suppress phantom traffic jams, when traffic slows down for no apparent reason. The research the Maine students helped with was featured recently on CBS This Morning.

“It’s tremendously fulfilling,” Judy Silver said of working with the Maine students.

One of the girls who has loved the Gizmo Garden programs is Brooke Rethman, 14, a freshman at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, the magnet and residential school in Limestone.

Rethman, who said she wants to be either a naturopathic doctor or an engineer, came home to Newcastle during school vacation week and was helping at the RoboPots workshop. She reflected on her own experiences with Gizmo Garden, which helped her develop her interest in STEM fields even when she was the only girl on her grade school robotics team.

“It was the funnest program I have ever done,” she said, taking a short break from helping the students figure out their wiring. “I hope this is interesting to them, too, and that one day maybe they go into a STEM career.”

Dorman, who sported a streak of blue in her hair, a T-shirt that read ‘Maker Librarian’ and a comfortable way with the students, said that in her own college computer studies she noticed a big gender disparity.

“Misogyny in computer science is a really real thing,” she said.

But in her work around the state teaching students problem solving, computational thinking and collaboration, she has found that girls have aptitude and ability. They just need to not forget that, Dorman said.

“We need to keep reminding these girls they can do it,” she said. “Kids eat this stuff up — and they’re really good at it. This generation of girls, they’re going to kill it.”

Judy Silver hopes so, too. She would like to increase the schools and libraries that offer these programs so that more girls — and boys — may discover that they are interested in science and computers after all. Towards that end, they offer equipment grants to organizations that want to hold workshops.

“The name breaks the stereotype,” she said of Gizmo Garden. “It’s not intimidating. It’s not scary. It’s just fun. And who knows what will grow from this … We’re not changing the whole world, but if we can make it a little better for kids in Maine, how cool would that be?”

For more information about Gizmo Garden, email judy@gizmogarden.org

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