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January 22, 2020

By Julia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

Every year, Lan Heng’s 5th Grade Computer Education class at Ethical Culture focuses on three projects: the school yearbook, a graduation slideshow of memories, and a robotics feat. But some projects — especially when it comes to robotics — need extra time and energy outside of the classroom. Thus, the Robotics Club was formed, meeting three times a week before school and during lunch periods.

The club is traditionally dominated by boys, with just a few girls per year — if that. (“Last year, I had three, and I was really excited,” Heng says.) This year, Heng renewed her efforts to “nudge the girls to join,” talking up the club in class and dispelling any fears her students might have about robotics being only for boys.

It worked. Ten girls signed up, kicking off a historic, all-female membership for the year.

Heng is conscious of the work needed to make robotics welcoming for her female students, who are up against societal messaging that technology is for boys. “I don’t want to push too hard and discourage them,” she says. Instead, she lets the students lead the way, letting them pursue projects that interest them.

Over the fall semester, the students undertook a project to build musical robots. Roughly half of the students were interested in instrumentation, while the other half favored dancing. Work began on a project to merge the two. The students’ plan? To create a musical performance set to Ethical Culture’s school song, “It’s the Feeling Inside.”

One student coded and built her robot to sing out the school song, one tinny note at a time. Others created robots that played the drums and the xylophone to accompany the music. Students traced their hands and attached paper cutouts to their robots, programming the robots to dance and wave to the beat of the music. Another pair of students set their robots to wag their arms rhythmically.

But the students were up against a challenge: a race against the clock. Ethical Culture Principal Rob Cousins invited the club to perform their musical number at the Holiday Assembly, and the pressure was on. It was already early December — just three weeks before the assembly — and movement had been slow, Heng says. They’d spent weeks building the robots without finished products, and the girls would have to kick it into high gear. Heng wasn’t sure they’d make the deadline, especially without adding stress to club members. The goal of the club has always been to instill confidence — could the students make the deadline without sacrificing the element of joy and fun?

On December 20, parents, guardians, faculty, staff, and students gathered in the auditorium for the Holiday Assembly. Excitement was high, especially among the 5th Graders, who were less than an hour away from their huge moment: they were about to sing — really, scream — “five golden rings” in the yearly rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and throw their Santa hats in the air.

In the lull between performances, three teachers lifted a platform onto the stage and rolled out a two-level cart laden with intriguing contraptions. Cousins walked on stage with a microphone and introduced the Robotics Club to a rapt audience.

The club members filed out, grabbing their robots, which they’d named “Raspberry,” “Blueberry,” and “Strawberry.” They assembled at the front of the stage and began.

One robot sprang to life, singing out Ethical Culture’s school song. Another kicked up on percussion, while others began to wiggle paper hands in programmed dance moves. The audience whooped and cheered, obviously delighted. The students smiled bashfully, glancing down at their robots and squinting through the spotlights at the audience, where parents frantically waved and craned to get photos.

The song ended to thunderous applause, and the girls basked for a moment before walking their robots off stage. They beat the clock, grew in confidence, and had fun doing it, Heng says, and this will hopefully be a harbinger of what’s to come: a Robotics Club with more girls present, proving that Robotics is for anyone.

But the work isn’t over yet. The club members are continuing on to a new challenge: the Rube Goldberg Contest, hosted on March 1, by Fieldston Upper School Science teacher Paul Church. Four boys have joined the club in preparation for the event, which will see the group continue to design and build story-telling machines that perform a simple task through a series of complex steps. After that comes the Robotics Expo in late April, where the club will showcase their year’s efforts.

And so the club marches forward, focusing on meeting their next big goal — gender equity included.