Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Empowering tomorrow's engineers — with robots

A Robogals session begins with an experiment. The club, which works with local schools and youth groups to encourage young women to consider becoming engineers, will have students draw what they imagine an engineer to look like. For the club’s members, the results are telling.

Robogals recently held a session with the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston. (Photo Supplied)

“Typically, they’ll draw a person holding a wrench or standing by a bridge, but regardless of what they’re doing, it’s almost always a man,” says Mandy Jor, Sci’15 and the club’s president. “If they do draw a woman, it’s because they have a mother, an aunt or family friend who’s an engineer.”

A major part of the work that Robogals members, who are female engineering students, do, is to provide a positive female role model. An offshoot of the international Robogals organization, the Queen’s chapter leads robotics workshops for young women, giving them a chance to learn the ins and outs of engineering by building and programming LEGO robots.

By working in an all-female environment, Ms. Jor says they’re better able to cater to specific learning styles.

“We usually see that boys and girls approach problems differently. The boys like to experiment and try things out to see how they work, but the girls prefer to strategize. They hang back and think things through before going hands on. When the boys go straight for the building materials, the girls can get left out, so we try to provide an all-female environment so the girls can come out of their shells and try things in a way that works for them.”

Robogals have partnered with groups like the Boys and Girls Club of Kingston and a number of elementary schools and their numbers are continuing to grow. They now have nearly 60 volunteers to conduct workshops and visit classrooms.

“Robogals is empowering for us and it empowers the girls we work with too,” says Ms. Jor. “We want to inspire them to see engineering as an option, something they could do, even if they eventually decide it’s not what they want to do.”

Historically, women have been underrepresented in various engineering fields, a matter that Robogals works to change. At Queen’s, they collaborate with another likeminded group, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), to make women more aware of the opportunities available in engineering. Their efforts seem to be having an effect, as Queen’s continues to outpace the national average for females studying engineering.

“While our faculty doesn’t do anything specifically to attract female students, many are nonetheless drawn by the fundamental pillars of our program,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. “This year, 28.8 per cent of our first-year students are female, compared to the national average of approximately 19 per cent.”