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Gender and group attitudes to STEM: a pilot evaluation of an outreach robotics activity

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Rebecca Ferguson
17 May 2016

Alice Peasgood, Jon Rosewell and Tony Hirst

Women are underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in higher education (HE), although attitudes and participation in STEM are less polarised at younger ages. Outreach activities that aim to inspire and enthuse school-age students may help girls to consider study and careers in STEM subjects.

The Royal Institution run extra-curricular ‘masterclasses’ that aim to inspire school students in mathematics. Our session in a series of secondary maths masterclasses uses a hands-on robotics activity based on the theme of ‘robot explorers’. Students work in small groups to solve the challenge of programming a small mobile robot to navigate by applying their maths and programming skills. This pilot study looked at the possible influence of gender and friendship groups on attitudes to STEM in the context of that activity.

Those attending the masterclass series were Year 9 students nominated by East London schools. Students completed a short evaluation sheet for the session and reported whether they knew others in their group. An observer noted whether boys or girls used the computer, held the robot, and similar measures. All data was collected anonymously and the study was approved by the OU Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC/2016/2238/Rosewell/1).

Preliminary results suggest that girls enjoyed the class more than boys. Girls also showed a greater increase in level of interest in robotics, although from a lower level than boys. There is a suggestion that individuals who found themselves in a group in which they had no friends reported a lower score for enjoyment.

The importance of friendship to the enjoyment and learning experienced in small group activity should be considered in the design of extra-curricular activities if they are to meet their stated aim of enthusing young students.


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