Eleven-year-old Hayliee Tat traveled two-and-a-half hours with her family for a sneak preview of what the future looks like with robots in it. Their destination: the robotics open house at the University of Southern California (USC). The annual event draws mainly elementary and secondary school students from Los Angeles and beyond to spark their interest in robotics and computer science.
“Not many girls and kids are in robotics,” said Tat, who was introduced to robotics, after a friend invited her to join a team that builds robots and competes with other teams through tasks the machines can perform.
“To me, this is a great way to meet new people, learn more and just have your creativity flow out,” said Tat.
Tat, however, is in the minority. There is an imbalance in the U.S. between the small number of computer science college graduates, and the number of available computing jobs, according to a study by global consulting firm Accenture and non-profit group Girls Who Code.
Women make up only a small percentage of people who can compete for these jobs. The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2015, women accounted for less than 18 percent of U.S. students graduating with a computer science degree.
The University of Southern California is trying to expose young people to robotics and computer science through the open house, where students can tour the research labs.
“We feel that if the kids can actually see the robots, hear the PhD students and the faculty members talk about what their research is and why it’s important, how robots benefit society, we see through experience that the kids get really excited,” said Katie Mills, manager of the robotics open house. She also manages the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s K-12 STEM (science, technology engineering and math) outreach program called VAST: Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher.
The aim is to make robotics exciting and relevant so a student will want to learn how to code.
"Coding is like the necessary second language that everybody, especially this generation, is going to need. You know that there’s fewer people, especially women, majoring in computer science in college now than there were 30 years ago? And there are so many jobs,” said Mills.
Not seeing the creative side of coding and not realizing there are real life applications in computer science may be reasons some women shy away from this degree.
That was the case for Caitlyn Clabaugh, who was studying fine arts and never thought about computer science until she saw how relevant it is to helping people by applying creativity.
“When there is a clear application to a real human usage, it sort of bridges the gap for me. I was interested in the arts. I was interested in all these things, then I found that I could create with computer science,” said Clabaugh, who is now a PhD candidate in computer science.
She researches how social companion robots can help children with autism.
“Definitely focusing on special needs is very special to me. I’ve struggled with dyslexia my entire life,” said Clabaugh.
Another way to attract girls to computer science, said some academics, is by dispelling the myth that coding and computer science are lonely pursuits.
Tat enjoys her robotics team because of the social element in building robots using the toy-building LEGO blocks.
“I personally love LEGO, so I think it was really fun to build LEGO and not only do you build LEGO you can do a lot of other things and it will make you smarter and the next thing you know, you’ll have a lot of friends,” said Tat.
Exposure to robotics and computer science before college is key, but not every school has the resources.
“They don’t maybe have enough robotics equipment or maybe they have teachers that are a little uncomfortable teaching computer science,” said Mills.
Through its VAST outreach program, the University of Southern California works with area schools, its teachers and students to try and fill the gap, in hopes of attracting more underrepresented students, including girls, to pursue computer science in college.
“It’s like a fire. If you light a spark, it will go on forever,” said Tat.