Professor Webb’s robotics workshop appeals to girls


By Heather Mendiola

White males have largely dominated the computer science industry since its inception. However, when it comes to problem solving and development, these men represent a limited scope of approaching a solution or new idea; and as with everything in life, there are numerous ways to approach the same problem.

Over the past 10 years, there have been many initiatives to bring those with different mindsets, such as women and minorities, into the world of computing. Recently, Google has started a program called Made w/ Code to appeal to girls and get them interested in computing. This program is online and gives girls the chance to create their own music loops, avatars, GIFs, 3D-printed bracelets and more with basic coding.

Like Google, Union has taken initiatives to try to diversify and grow the computer science department. Over the past few years Professor and Director of Interdisciplinary Programs Valerie Barr has worked with the department to create six theme-based introductory courses to attract more students around the campus to learn the basics of computing.

This year, it takes one more step as Visiting Assistant Professor Nick Webb hands his Social Robotics Workshop to students in the Association of Computing Machinery Council on Women (ACM-W).

Professor Webb received a grant from the National Center for Women & Information Technology five years ago, when he was still at UAlbany, for a Social Robotics Workshop. With this money, sponsored by Microsoft Seed Fund, the workshop bought Lego NXT robots. When professor Webb came to Union four years ago, he brought this workshop with him. Since then, the workshop has been performed over 25 times to groups like Girl Scouts; Girls, Inc.; and STEP, and has engaged over 350 students. The Social Robotics Workshop can host up to 30 students at one time.

Social robotics is a name for robots that would work alongside people. In this workshop, Professor Webb uses Lego NXT robots to give children hands-on experience with robots, code and programming.  After the children have played with the robots and coded them to perform certain commands, they learn how to program the robots to have personalities. They can program the robots to be happy, sad or angry. For example, as Professor Webb explains in his TEDx talk, if you had a robot in your house vacuuming, it ran into you and you said, “Ouch,” it could reply, “Sorry.”

Professor Webb’s workshop also aims to show young women that an interest in coding is a viable option for their futures and that they are, in fact, wanted in the field. This workshop seems to be having a positive influence on young girls’ interest in computer science. At the workshop, Professor Webb collects data from a survey given before and after the workshop so he can see the effects of the workshop. Before the workshop, girls’ interest was significantly lower than boys’ interest in computing, and after the workshop their interests were the same. Additionally, Professor Webb has noticed that women and men interact differently with robots, and he believes that this alternative interaction is vitally important to have as we head into the future of computers and technology becomes more a part of our daily routines.

The future of robotics and computing is not just in the hands of computer scientists; robotics requires the participation of other majors, such as psychology and philosophy, to solve personality and ethical problems that may arise.

Even though Professor Webb thinks his is “the most awesome department,” he invites students to try one of the introductory courses that is tailored to their other interests to learn the fundamentals of programming and technological interaction.


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