How two sisters brought robotics and coding to young girls

Here’s a question: If you had the choice between Bharatanatyam and robotics as an after-school programme for your son or daughter what would you choose? Chances are, most of you’d pick robotics for the boys and Bharatanatyam for the girls. It seems like a natural choice to most people; after all why would girls be interested in coding and robotics right? Wrong.

At least, that’s what Aditi Prasad, co-founder, Indian Girls Code, discovered when conducting robotics classes for schools and summer camps in the city.

How two sisters brought robotics and coding to young girls

“When we conducted it as an in-school programme, we had a girl-boy ratio of about 50:50. But when it came to after-school programmes or summer camps, it was largely skewed; often as much as 90:10 or 80:20. Turns out, robotics and coding were often not the first choice when it came to girls; but it was a choice made by the parents. While there’s nothing wrong, I did think it would be nice for the children to make these choices for themselves,” says 31-year-old Prasad, who has been teaching robotics in schools in the city since 2009 under her initiative Robotix.

According to an August 2017 article on the website freeCodeCamp, only about 12% to 15% of the engineers who are building the Internet and its software are women.

In a 2016 article by World Economic Forum, ‘data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 73% of US computer science workers are male coders and across technology generally, women are rather underrepresented.’ The numbers seem slightly better back home, though, with a 2016 article in The Hindu quoting Vivek Prakash, co-founder of HackerEarth, as saying that India is a powerhouse of programmers with about three million of them, of which at least 25% were women; still quite a disparity in the ratio.

The genesis

The skewed ratio led Prasad and her Boston-based sister Deepti to launch Indian Girls Code, an extension to Robotix, in 2013.

“This was largely inspired by movements such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code that one sees in the US. We wanted to encourage more girls to take to coding, innovate and create. It’s a way to use technology to solve real world problems and girls can do it too,” she says.

How two sisters brought robotics and coding to young girls

Indian Girls Code began as an after-school programme, and as summer camps for girls as young as four or five years of age. “Around the same time, I happened to visit Annai Ashram, an orphanage in Tiruchi, where I happened to interact with girls who came from tough backgrounds. They had no access to quality education. That led us to want to focus on educating underprivileged girls as well. The idea was to enable them with skills to break the cycles that their families had been through. Our dream was to work with engineering colleges and corporates to provide these students an equal opportunity as well,” says Prasad.

Currently at the ashram, they have about 50 girl students and they add about 25 each year. While the Indian Girls Code programme begins for girl students as young as four years old, at the ashram they begin at Class IV.

“At the ashram, we teach them in Tamil and try to expose them to language through learning. Today, these girls talk about sensors and that kind of thing, despite their limited exposure,” she says.

Hands-on approach

At their programme, the founders believe in using only hands-on tools to teach. Softwares such as Scratch (an open source software from Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are used to impart technical know-how to the students. “It is as simple as drag and drop but uses fun projects using coding language,” says Prasad, adding, that they as a company also developed and launched Phiro Robots in 2015, that their students now use.

“Phiro Robots were our make in India product that we launched on Kickstarter and are now used by educators globally. These robots use Lego compatible toys that can be coded using Scratch to make anything a child wants… you could programme a car to do specific functions or even programme a robot to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for your mum. The child’s imagination is the limit.”

How two sisters brought robotics and coding to young girls

As Prasad and her sister coordinate over Skype and FaceTime, they put together course content to rouse an interest in their students. “We’re not saying that they should all become engineers. But we’re encouraging them to become innovators and creators. That is something we are lacking in here,” she says.

Indian Girls Code is now a team of 40 engineers, educators and teachers who conduct regular and weekend classes and summer camps. Some of the schools in the city that they’ve collaborated with are Budding Minds International School, BVM Global, American International School, a Corporation school in Perungudi, Indus Early Learning Centre in Adyar etc.

“Our main challenge is getting cross sectoral support. Some of the NGOs and homes that we’d like to collaborate with are often sceptical and would rather focus on languages and subjects such as mathematics. But we can use robotics to teach these as well.”

Need for change

The company recently launched two new tech products that were showcased at CES in Las Vegas.

How two sisters brought robotics and coding to young girls

But the gap in innovation from Indian companies was something that stood out starkly, says Prasad.

“We’re such a large country, and so many of us do engineering, with many ending up in back end jobs. The question that then arises is, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ Of the hundreds of companies that showcased at CES, only about seven were Indian. Where are our innovators and creators? That is something we’re looking to change.”

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 7:20:49 PM |

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