Children gather around three LEGO robots in a Robogals workshop.

The Case for Robogals

The astounding gender imbalance in engineering and technology fields, and the broader problem of an engineer shortage in the Australian economy are both profound issues that warrant urgent attention.

As of 2011 only 10.9% of engineers in the overall engineering labour force in Australia were women and the proportion of women completing engineering degree courses was 13.8%, a level it has remained around since the 1990s.[1] The UK and US regions display similar figures at 8.7% and 14% of professional engineers being female respectively as of 2012.[2][3] This is against the backdrop of an ever-increasing shortage of qualified engineers, with Engineers Australia estimating that 70,000 engineers will have retired in the five years leading to 2011, with just 45,000 graduates to take their places. In December 2010, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted, "skills shortages in the engineering profession are of serious concern, holding back investment and productivity growth."[4] Furthermore, the annual commencements of engineering bachelors degrees in Australia increased by 25.6% from 2001 to 2010 however the women's share of these commencements decreased from 14.2% to 12.3%.

A comprehensive review of engineering education coordinated by the Australian Council of Engineering Deans in 2008 included as two of its six key recommendations to improve public understanding of engineering, particularly in schools, and to attract more women into the field.[5] Report author Emeritus Professor Robin King said that underpinning the current engineer shortage, "the underrepresentation of women in engineering is something which has continually concerned us. We thought we'd taken measures in the 90s to improve the situation and undoubtedly we have, but the incremental growth in the participation of women has plateaued or may be slightly negative."[6]

This problem starts at school with only slightly above 10% of year 12 students studying advanced mathematics and under 20% of students studying intermediate mathematics in 2010, percentages that have been steadily falling since the early 90's. Take-up rates for physics and chemistry study are in addition not ideal at about 15% and 18% respectively also exhibiting a downward trend, according to Engineers Australia "it is the composition of science completions and its gender balance that is the limiting factor on the potential flow of students to tertiary engineering courses"[7]

'Engineering' is rarely articulated for school students and for many, especially young women, is not part of their vocabulary, let alone considered as a career option.[8] Part of the reason for this is that unlike many other areas of study such as maths, science or literature, engineers rarely become schoolteachers. It is therefore important for us as engineers to present ourselves to the school students directly through outreach programmes to develop an accurate understanding of the profession.[9]

Robogals primarily targets girls in grades 5-7 with fun, educational robotics workshops that aim to introduce 'engineering' into the girls' vocabulary, and show that it can be fun and exciting. Considering 98% of female engineers find their careers rewarding we believe introducing the possibility of a future in engineering to these girls as being tremendously worthwhile.[10] Teachers have reported an increased interest in engineering among their students following visits from Robogals:

In addition to the programming, the Robogals also discussed career pathways with the girls, and since the workshop many have discussed the possibility of studying engineering and technology with their teachers and friends. As a teacher of IT, I would strongly recommend the Robogals workshops.
Nathaniel Bradshaw
Discipline Area Coordinator of IT
Caroline Chisholm Catholic College

By conducting these activities in a girls-only environment, the classroom dynamic is such that the girls are able to participate fully in the robot building and programming. As noted by one educator who runs a similar programme in the United States, "At the age ranges we offer classes to, 12 to 14 year olds, girls (more cautious and calculating) appear to employ different problem solving techniques than boys (heavy emphasis on trial and error), which creates a classroom dynamic dominated by the boys, since they enthusiastically jump at every opportunity to get their hands on something even before they know what to do with it or how it works."[11] A similar dynamic has also been observed by Robogals in co-ed classrooms here.

Finally, Robogals also targets high school girls with engineering career talks at the age when they are making choices regarding later-year school subjects and tertiary courses. As an example the first cohort of grade 6 girls visited by Robogals (in Melbourne in 2008) were in year 9 in 2011, they were visited again at this seminal age but this time to talk about careers in engineering and hear stories from successful female engineers.

By taking this systematic approach, we hope that in coming years we will begin to see more clearly the full impact of the programme. A key focus area in 2011 is trying to better understand how we can verify and quantify this impact, and use these results to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of the Robogals programme.

  • [1] Engineers Australia Statistical Overview 2012
  • [2] Engineering UK 2012 The State of Engineering
  • [3] U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, 2012
  • [4] 'Scoping Our Future: Addressing Australia's Engineering Skills Shortage', Australian National Engineering Taskforce, December 2010
  • [5] 'Addressing the supply and quality of engineering graduates for the new century', Emeritus Professor Robin King, ACED, March 2008
  • [6] ibid.
  • [7] Engineers Australia Statistical Overview 2012
  • [8] 'When engineers don't teach and teachers don't engineer', Betty J. Jacobs, University of Technology Sydney, 2007, p. 3
  • [9] ibid.
  • [10] Atkins: A careers research study, 2013
  • [11] Erik Dreyer, Pasadena Educational Foundation