TAMPA — The girls robotics team at Stewart Middle Magnet School didn't even know how to program a Lego Mindstorms robot in March. ¶ A month later, they had designed a computerized control system that guided their robot through a twisting obstacle course. ¶ The effort won them first place in a countywide competition against more experienced middle school students. ¶ "I am blown away,'' said Rick Pountney, a technology teacher at Stewart and their sponsor. "It's so impressive. ¶ "These girls will make a big difference in keeping girls in the program.''
Robotics is part of Hillsborough County Public Schools' STEM education — a specialized focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
The idea is to train the next generation of workers to fill a growing need for highly skilled job candidates.
The robotics program helps develop students' aptitudes for programming, critical thinking and team building.
For many, "it's how we get them in the door,'' said Mike Wilson, an engineering lab teacher at McLane Middle School in Brandon.
Robotics, like other STEM offerings, is popular among boys.
But girls are starting to show more interest, a trend that could turn the tide for women, who continue to be under-represented in STEM-related fields.
Hillsborough doesn't track robotics studies by gender, but Wilson estimates the number of girls in McLane's robotics program has quadrupled in the last five years.
A study released in February by the Girl Scout Research Institute found that among 1,000 girls nationwide between the ages of 8 and 18, the majority — 74 percent — are interested in STEM.
Like the boys, they enjoy the creative, hands-on approach to learning.
But sometime during middle school, girls start to lose interest in math and science — the building blocks of STEM careers.
Among the causes, the study found, is poor parental and educational support and a lack of exposure to the STEM world.
Parent Tracy Gaschler is trying hard not to let that happen to her daughter.
Even as a toddler, Rebecca Gaschler didn't play with toys the way other children did. She would flip them over and take them apart to see how they worked.
"She was like MacGyver,'' said her mother, recalling TV's fictional secret agent, Angus MacGyver, famous in the 1980s and early '90s for saving the day with homemade devices and duct tape.
Rebecca loved building things and learning about space and science, so her parents focused on nurturing those interests.
They took her to the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis when she was in fifth grade. The experience left an impression.
The following year, Rebecca enrolled in Stewart, eyeing its STEM Institute, the NASA Explorer School and John Glenn Top Gun Academy, among other programs.
Soon after, the sixth-grader announced she wanted to join the Girls Go Tech after-school club.
"We told her to try it — try everything!'' Tracy Gaschler said.
The club, sponsored by the Girl Scouts, which offers a STEM badge, ended in December. But Rebecca and the other girls were hooked.
Pountney convinced them to try robotics.
"They weren't sure at first,'' said the former airplane mechanic.
Fear of the unknown quickly turned to eager for the challenge — especially since the girls were among their female peers.
"We don't have any distractions,'' said Rebecca, 11.
"Plus, everyone listens to everyone's ideas,'' said Brianna Schroeder, 12.
The sixth-grader and her twin sister, Alyssa, have always been creative and hands-on, thinking outside the box to solve problems, said their mother, Dorothy Schroeder.
At an early age, the girls gravitated toward math, science and technology. STEM education was a perfect fit.
"The STEM program is so unique and different and adds so much fun,'' said Brianna, who plans to study science and technology in college.
The experience has inspired Alyssa to set her sites on computer-aided architectural design or video game design.
Their parents — mom is a math coach and department head at Middleton High and dad is a finance manager — just keep challenging them.
Their advice: Send your children to schools that expose them to different opportunities.
Even if they don't seem to have the aptitude for certain subjects, Schroeder said, "Still send them.''