Saturday robotics workshops help middle and high school girls dispel "computing phobia."
Photo of participants in RACECAR final race day.
On the final day of the RACECAR crash course, the middle school and high school girls met in the high bay in MIT's Building 31 to showcase the capabilities of the autonomous cars their teams programmed to navigate a circuitous course. Photo: Joel Grimm

"My goal is to make computing 'normal' for girls," said Sabina Chen from Lincoln Laboratory's Advanced Capabilities and Systems Group who led a workshop that taught middle school girls how to program a robotic car to autonomously follow colored cones. The girls attended this enrichment class for eight consecutive Saturdays from September 28 to November 16. "The class is about exposure [to computing] and interest building," she explained.

While Chen was introducing the 20 middle school girls to coding and computer visualization software at the Beaver Works facility in MIT's Building 31, Eyassu Shimelis of the Laboratory's Advanced Concepts and Technologies Group was conducting a similar series of classes for 21 high school girls in MIT's Building 33.

The motivation behind holding the girls-only workshops is to foster a curiosity and familiarity in computing that may lead to a future increase in the number of women engaged in computer science. According to, in 2018 only 18% of bachelor's degrees in computer science were awarded to women; in electrical engineering, a major that often leads to professions involving computing, the percentage is even less, 13.7. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women make up only about 21% of computer programmers, 19% of software developers, and 32% of website developers.

While educators propose multiple theories about why women are underrepresented in computer-related majors and jobs, one consensus is that young women do not have confidence in their ability to master computers. "The girls came in thinking they can't do it," Chen said, adding that she finds the course worthwhile when "their eyes sort of sparkle when they realize they can do it."

Both workshops are based on a rigorous four-week course offered to high school seniors through the Beaver Works Summer Institute (BWSI). The summer course lets students explore the various technologies that can be used to enable an MIT-designed RACECAR (Rapid Autonomous Complex Environment Competing Ackermann steeRing) robotic vehicle to compete in fast, autonomous navigation around a mini "Grand Prix" racetrack. Although the Saturday sessions could not delve as deeply as the summer course into the software and various systems needed for the cars to tackle the obstacle-ridden Grand Prix, these weekend "crash courses" did cover the coding and computer vison technology that allowed the girls to race their cars around a circular course set up in Building 31's high-bay space.

Chen developed the curriculum for the middle school program that was offered to both boys and girls this past summer in conjunction with the BWSI. "It is designed so students learn a specific concept, apply it, and see an immediate result," she said. The gratification of witnessing a hands-on application of a lesson is what keeps the students interested. Her curriculum will soon be online so that schools, robotics clubs, or even interested individuals can adapt it for themselves. 

Shimelis taught a similar version of a RACECAR preliminary course for Boston-area high schoolers. That course was developed in 2018 by Andrew Fishberg, who passed along his program when he moved on to tackle graduate studies at MIT. Shimelis is tweaking the course to address feedback from BWSI RACECAR students and teaching assistants, and to adapt it to his teaching style.

Both Chen and Shimelis said they did not modify their courses for the girls-only sessions that were new this fall. They agreed that the girls were eager to learn and capable of handling the classwork. "Many of the girls were faster at grasping the concepts than students in my summer course," Shimelis noted. This is high praise because to be accepted for the BWSI program, students must complete a prerequisite RACECAR online tutorial and submit teacher recommendations and stellar school transcripts.

Chen said she was pleased by the change she saw in the girls from the beginning to the end of her workshop. "At the end, they were a lot more sure of themselves and more willing to explore their own ideas without fear."

PHOTO of instructors and mentors for RACECAR crash course
Instructors Chen and Shimelis, front row left, are seen with the volunteers who helped at the final race day: from back row clockwise, Schoer, Brown, Ledet, Hanumanthu, Packer, Wang, Karaman, and Kocic. Photo: Joel Grimm

According to Chen and Shimelis, the success of the two workshops can in large part be attributed to the dedicated help of a number of people. Sertac Karaman, an MIT engineering professor who developed the original RACECAR course for undergraduate students, provided guidance to both the instructors and students. A cadre of volunteers served as teaching assistants: Kourosh Arasteh, Olivia Brown, Juliana Furgala, Saivamsi Hanumanthu, Elisa Kirchheim, Tzofi Klinghoffer, Marko Kocic, Aryk Ledet, Harrison Packer, Joyce Tam, and Jing Wang from Lincoln Laboratory's staff; and Andrew Schoer, a Boston University grad student who is a participant in the Laboratory's Lincoln Scholars tuition assistance program.

The success of the workshops is captured in one student's answer to a course evaluation question about what she gained: "I see myself coding in the future!"