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In Response to “Robotics Team Needs to Do More to Include Girls”

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Dear “Weekly” Editors,

We would like to take a moment to respond to Felicia Miller’s editorial piece, “Write Like A Girl.” We deeply appreciate her bringing attention to the need to continue to encourage girls to participate in STEM programs. However, we were concerned that after reading her article, members of the community might walk away with an incomplete understanding of the structure and purpose of FIRST Lego Robotic League (FLL) here at Parker. So while not taking away from Felicia’s personal experience, we would like to clarify several points.

In FLL, teams spend several months during the Fall working together to prepare for a competition that equally stresses three different components: designing a robot using the LEGO Mindstorms kits, designing a solution to a real world problem, and working collaboratively as a team in a way that embodies FLL’s core values. Each of the three parts of the FLL experience is extremely important for helping middle schoolers grow into the engineers, scientists, designers, and change-makers that will help shape the future of our society.

Two of the core values of FLL are we are a team,” and “we do the work to find solutions with guidance from our coaches and mentors.” Although some teams may take a more top-down approach, here at Parker this means that we strive to put team members in the driver’s seat as much as possible. We seek to give the team control in setting the agenda for their meetings, dividing up the work, and allowing their own interests to shape what they learn and how they contribute to the team. We also let team members’ initiative guide their own learning. More important than any outcome of a competition is that team members are asking questions, being resourceful, being enterprising in their learning, and recognizing frustration and failure as uncomfortable but valuable experiences.

So when Felicia recounts how she was “assigned” the role of design coordinator, she underrepresents the agency and active role in selecting what they work on that we give to team members. In addition, to suggest that the contributions that she made to the team for their award-winning design project, an interactive website that helps people learn to code, were perceived as “meaningless and distracting” fails to fully represent the entirety of the FLL experience.

Also, we would like to share how staffing occurs for all of our Middle School programs, but in particular FLL. Mr. Colestock, in his role as 4th through 8th Grade STEM teacher, leads and oversees the entire FLL program (we currently have three teams, one for each grade in the Middle School). We seek to find the best sponsors at each grade level-people who can connect with the age group, know the purpose and goals of FLL, and encourage students to grow and learn. In looking through the lens of gender, we have been fortunate to have at least one female sponsor as part of the program during the last 4 years, Ms. Valerie Dooling, Ms. Damaris Allen, and, this year, Ms. Jen Marshall. In all of our opportunities in the Middle School, we strive to find diverse sponsors that want to learn and engage with our students to create a positive and safe environment.

We also have computer programming integrated into projects throughout the science curriculum in grades 4 through 8 and a robotics unit in 5th and 8th grades so that all students are introduced to programming and have the opportunity to decide if it is something that they enjoy and would like to pursue more in a club setting or on their own. These projects provide an introduction to computational thinking and allow teachers to recognize students that seem to have an interest in programming and provide encouragement. For example, for the past several years, Ms. Fries and Mr. Colestock have sent an invitation to students that seem particularly engrossed in robotics, encouraging them to check out the Upper School robotics program.

Beyond FLL in the fall, we provide other extracurricular opportunities in the Middle School for students to pursue an interest in programming. Spring robotics provides a more open-ended opportunity to work individually or in small groups to build and program robots using the Lego Mindstorms kits. Last year, we introduced a series of after school Creative Computing workshops in the Middle School to highlight the range of creative endeavors that can benefit from fluency with computational thinking. We look forward to continuing this program and hope to integrate it into the exciting new maker’s space in our library.

It is also important for us to be reflective, listen to feedback, and make improvements where we can. Being a part of ANY team can be challenging, and we believe that struggle is an important part of the learning process. While most to all of our Middle School club offerings are drop-in, we have learned, after Felicia’s experience, that having students join mid-season is difficult. Teams have already made design choices for their robot, including coding for their tasks, their topics for research, and team bonding and unity has started and can leave new students coming in late to FLL in a tough situation when they want to be major contributors.

We now share with students more explicitly the time commitment of FLL, as well as the challenges of starting late, so that students are not surprised when they join. Our hope for students in FLL is that they have positive experiences where they feel they have contributed to their team through high-quality work, understanding the value of the other team members, and knowing more about programming, engineering, and the design process than they did when they started.

Intermediate and Middle School Dean of Student Life Siobhan Allen and STEM and Coding Teacher Adam Colestock

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School
In Response to “Robotics Team Needs to Do More to Include Girls”