Breaking Gender Stereotypes Through Early Exposure to Robotics
By Amanda Sullivan
Over the past two decades, women in the U.S. have made notable progress in historically male-dominated fields, such as law and business. However, when it comes to technology and engineering, they are progressing at a much slower rate. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational interventions aimed at addressing the gender disparity between men and women have generally focused on increasing the interest of girls and women during high school and college. For many girls, though, interventions that begin during adolescence may be coming too late. Children as young as 4 are already beginning to develop basic stereotypes and attitudes based on gender, so educators can start providing girls with playful introductions to the world of technology and engineering beginning in early childhood.
Why Start Early?
Research has shown that basic stereotypes begin to develop in children around 2 to 3 years of age. As children grow older, stereotypes about sports, occupations, and adult roles expand, and their gender associations become more sophisticated. Negative stereotypes toward math and science can develop in girls starting in elementary school. These stereotypes may contribute to the under-representation of women in many technical STEM fields.
We can combat these stereotypes by reaching girls before these negative stereotypes set in. Research suggests that children who are exposed to STEM curriculum and programming at an early age demonstrate fewer gender-based stereotypes regarding STEM careers and fewer obstacles entering these fields later in life.
How to Start Early
Engaging young children (both boys and girls) with playful tools that teach coding, design, and engineering is an easy first step. Research conducted by the DevTech Research Group at Tufts University shows that young children can learn programming and engineering at a very early age. This is possible when children are given tools that are developmentally appropriate and engaging, and that encourage open-ended play.
Today's teachers have access to a wealth of new tools directed at engaging young children with STEM content. While the battle of the "pink aisle" versus the "blue aisle" in toy stores continues (think Goldie Blox and LEGO Friends versus LEGO City), new tools like the KIBO Robotics Kit offer a different approach to engaging young girls in building and coding: a gender-neutral design that is marketed towards all young children.
Backed by years of research conducted by DevTech, KIBO is a robotics kit that teaches foundational coding and engineering to children ages 4-7. Children learn to sequence programs using wooden programming blocks, so there is no screen-time required. They explore foundational engineering concepts through the use of motors, sensors, lights, and more. The kit's wooden art platforms free children to decorate their robots differently each time they use them.
Research Proves the Power of Robotics
In a DevTech research study conducted with 105 children in kindergarten through 2nd grade in Somerville, Massachusetts, results demonstrated that using an early prototype of KIBO as part of an engaging curriculum that involved collaboration and community-building, girls increased their interest in being an engineer when they grew up. Additionally, while boys started with a higher level of interest in being an engineer, boys and girls were equally interested in engineering after exposure to KIBO.
This same study also found that, beginning in kindergarten, children were already developing some masculine stereotypes about certain STEM games, products, and activities. Being exposed to robotics in their classroom helped to change some of these views. This demonstrates the power of early exposure to robotics and coding in defying gender stereotypes toward technology and engineering fields.
Advice for Educators
Here are a few tips on how educators can get students excited about robotics and coding while leaving stereotypes in the dust.
- Start them young: Don't wait to reach girls until they are already in their teenage and college years. Begin exposing girls to STEM in early childhood and early elementary school settings to make the greatest impact.
- Choose engaging, open-ended STEM tools: Choose tools that empower young girls as creators of their digital experience, not consumers of it. These may include programmable robots, building blocks and bricks, digital programming languages, and more.
- Consider collaborative projects over competitive ones: While many robotics programs beginning at the elementary school-level focus on competitions collaborative projects may engage a wider range of students to participate.
- Be aware of your own stereotypes and biases: Everyone has their own opinions. Remember that young children pick up on what you are saying and doing. Choose your words carefully around your young students!
- Expose children to STEM role models from a range of genders and backgrounds: Be aware of what young children are seeing on an everyday basis in school, at home, in the media, and in books. Do they see engineers and scientists who look like them? Try introducing children to fictional characters and real-life role models from STEM fields that represent a range of genders, backgrounds, and experiences. Don't know where to start? Check out the simple picture books Rosie Revere Engineer or Ada Twist Scientist that feature young girls grappling with STEM concepts. For a look at real-world women in STEM, check out Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women and Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World.
- Actions speak louder than words: Your role-modeling matters to the young children around you. What do you do when you make mistake? Have a question about how something works? Whether it's fixing a broken piece of furniture in your classroom, building a complicated LEGO model, or debugging a problem with your KIBO robot, modeling a sense of scientific inquiry and problem-solving--and encouraging young girls to do so, too-- can make a lasting difference.
Early intervention can have powerful long-term impacts on the lives of children. By starting with developmentally appropriate picture books, tools, and role-modeling, parents and teachers can inspire the next generation of female scientists and innovators and help get rid of STEM stereotypes once and for all.
Dr. Amanda Sullivan, Ph.D. received her Master's and Ph.D. in Child Development at Tufts University in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, where she worked on the research and development of the KIBO robot with the DevTech Research Group. Her research centers on engaging girls in STEM and understanding young children's development of gender stereotypes toward the technical STEM fields. Amanda is now the associate director of the Early Childhood Technology Graduate Certificate Program at Tufts and a post-Doctoral researcher with DevTech. Follow Amanda on Twitter @AASully.