The Future Belongs to… Not the Pudgy, White Boys

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On Saturday, Jonah participated in a regional Lego Robotics competition. His team was mostly composed of short, pudgy, white boys. These guys were definitely not on a sports team. Jo was the only kid in the club, who after two hours of robotics, came home, did homework, and then went to soccer practice. (He wanted to do everything.)

The boys were very serious about their robots. They worked every day through lunch period and then for an hour or two after school. Despite all their hard work, Jonah's team was demolished in the competition by the all-Asian girl teams from the neighboring towns.

At the end of a very long day, the kids waited as the judges tabulated the scores. The girls sat demurely on the bleachers. The boys on Jonah's team escaped from the gym and rolled down the hill in front of the school. They sat back on the bleachers with goofy smiles and muddy jeans.

Our kids didn't win a medal, but they had fun and learned a little programming in the process.

16 thoughts on “The Future Belongs to… Not the Pudgy, White Boys

  1. I now run two robotics clubs. I’m torn about the competitions. On the one hand, a little competition can be a good thing. On the other, it can become a deterrent for those who don’t like to compete–especially girls. There are more fun ways to learn programming, imo.

  2. What are you talking about? Those boys are SVELTE. Go hang around some schoolyards, and before you get taken away in cuffs, you will see pudgy!

  3. I think some competition is a good thing. What would sports be without games, and running without races? Mind you it’s fine if someone wants to run without racing, but it’s good for the “girls who don’t want to compete” to learn how to win and lose.
    How do they run the robotics competition?
    My first beef with childhood competitions (especially not in sports, where the kids seem to play much the same games the adults do) is when we teach them to do organ grinder monkey tricks, rather than stretch their minds, bodies, or skills. I really don’t like the spelling bee, for example. Science fairs seem to vary greatly, but some seem pretty good. My kid is now doing destination imagination, but I haven’t understood how the competitions will go yet.
    My second beef is when kids are forced to specialize too early. My kids have full schedules, partially because I don’t want them to devote all their energies to one activity (unless they really really wanted to). That makes us busy, but, right now, we can do it — signing up for one thing doesn’t mean you have to give up everything else.

  4. But, Laura, the girls totally cleaned up at this competition. Girls were a minority – maybe 30 – 40% girls. But they won every award. After this, it will be hard to convince me that girls are suffering in math and science.

  5. “After this, it will be hard to convince me that girls are suffering in math and science.”
    What? based on one middle school robotics competition?

  6. What? Because the girls who self-select to participate in a robotics competition in middle school were extremely competent? Wow. ‘Cause, see, from my perspective as a female scientist, the issue isn’t that the girls don’t have the ability, but that too few of them are encouraged to pursue it. And there are too many societal roadblocks to later success.

  7. yes. Making big generalizations here based on an anecdote.
    “… the issue isn’t that the girls don’t have the ability, but that too few of them are encouraged to pursue it.”
    While girls were only 30-40% of the total crowd of the robotics club, that’s probably a higher percentage than in the past. The judges certainly encouraged them by giving them every award. Their parents encouraged them; they were in the audience. Their schools funded them. But these were middle school girls. The roadblocks might be bigger in high school. It would be fascinating to follow these girls over ten years to see if they continued in math/science fields.
    Also, the girls all came from very affluent towns. I wonder if girls from less affluent towns have more obstacles.

  8. Purely developmentally, there’s a certain point in middle school where girls shoot ahead of boys. I remember how delighted I was as a 6th grader when I noticed that I was suddenly much taller than my same-age boy cousin who had always been approximately my height. The same disparity in development may occur in organizational ability, intellectual skills, etc. Things mostly even out later, and I think it may be worthwhile for parents of middle school boys to point that out.

  9. I interview prospective Cornell students as an alumni interviewer, and a bunch of them have been women interested in going into the sciences or quantitative-focused social sciences (met with a potential econ major this past weekend).
    More anecdata, I guess. I don’t get the city kids, just my little pocket of SE MA, which has plenty of affluent suburbs.

  10. Laura, I definitely think that’s a good sign–that there were lots of girls–but that’s not been my experience, even at the middle school level around here. At the high school level, the participation of girls in these competitions is dismal. And, I’m honestly not sure what they teach–that robotics and computer science is a hobby, a sport? Would we do the same with other subjects? Science fairs and math competitions don’t seem to have that sports-like quality to them. I work with very affluent girls and they still have obstacles. We have the opportunity to compete at the world competitions, but it’s going to cost $700-800 per person. Plus, there’s the time factor. To compete, they have to meet every single day for several hours, plus there are weekend events to attend. Some of them can’t or don’t want to put so much into one thing–and I actually think that’s a good thing. I’m interested in encouraging the student who’s interested in art or literature or biology that computer science has something to offer them, even if they stick with their preferred discipline. These robotics competitions do not get that across; instead, they foster the stereotype that it takes an obsessive personality to do robotics or computer science. I’m trying to get away from that.

  11. Really interesting observation, Laura. Our middle school doesn’t offer any computer science classes at all. They have a technology class – a six week rotation class – but the kids just learn how to use all the functions in Microsoft Word. The advisers of Jonah’s robotics club don’t even know how to program; the kids had to figure it out on their own.
    I vaguely remember some literature that looked at girls in the math/sciences and they found that they start off even with the boys, but something happens at the high school level that takes them in another direction. Hmmm. If I come across those studies again, I’ll blog about it.

  12. If the cute little boys remain interested in tech, the future will belong to them (and all the other kids interested in tech.) I’m not a huge fan of competitions. I cast a jaundiced eye on the juvenile resume building circuit. It’s great that they found time to play on such a long day. They’re less likely to burn out on intellectual play at the end of middle school.
    It was a wonderful surprise for my cousin’s tech son to arrive at his highly-ranked university, and find himself surrounded by other tech geeks. Waiting for registration materials, he and the next guy in line debated who was the best Dr. Who. Many of his fellow classmates have had a lot of fun throughout childhood building robots and writing programs.
    Surely there’s room in this expanding field for every interested child.

  13. Nodding my head in agreement. I actually don’t know how to program the robots they use in the competitions. Many actual computer scientists don’t, because it’s a very particular kind of language made just for those robots. I’m learning right along with the kids.
    As for the technology classes, I’ve completely revamped them. In middle school, we start with web design–actual html and css. In 7th, we’re doing video editing, although I want to change this, but it’s working okay. In 8th, we do Scratch programming, which is working out really, really well. What I’m finding is that kids know how to use Word and Excel fairly proficiently. They get better at those in the context of using them for other classes. What they don’t know is how their computer and the Internet works. They don’t know the difference between Word and a browser. They don’t know the difference between hard drives on a computer and storage on a server. Those are the kinds of things I’m trying to get across.
    And I’d love to see those studies.🙂

  14. “…the stereotype that it takes an obsessive personality to do robotics or computer science.”
    Whoa–are you saying that the stereotype’s not true? Doesn’t it take an obsessive personality to do anything detail-oriented?

  15. I’m not a huge fan of competitions.
    If it weren’t for competitions, I wouldn’t be a female scientist today.
    I wasn’t a natural tinkerer, and while my parents would have lept to support me if I had expressed interest, they didn’t model that behavior so it just never occurred to me.
    It was competitions like OM and science fairs that made me see science as something that happens outside of fourth period. I needed that very formal structure and external motivation as a way to get started.

  16. Computer science is not necessarily detail-oriented. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re primarily a coder, then yes, you need to pay some attention to detail, but there are lots of other CS areas that are not just about programming. Primarily, CS is about using computers to solve problems. That’s pretty broad.

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