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Six-year-old girls who spend 20-minutes programming robots had more positive opinions about their tech abilities and more interest in programming and robotics. In these images from a new paper from the University of Washington and others, the girls are programming their robots in images A and C, and watching them navigate the pathway in B and D.

There’s a lot of effort to attract women to the computer sciences at universities and the workforce. But to shift technology’s gender imbalance we might need to focus on a younger crowd. Much younger — like 6-year-olds.

For the first time, research from the University of Washington shows that by first grade, children are already embracing the stereotype that boys are better than girls at robotics and programming. At the same time, the kids believe that girls and boys are equally good or their own gender is better at math and other sciences.

And girls with the strongest negative stereotypes about their genders’ tech abilities also reported the least interest and personal skill in programming and robotics.

The little girls’ perceptions matter, said Allison Master, a research scientist with the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

Allison Master, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

“If she thinks that boys are going to be better than girls at robotics and programming,” Master said, “she then might think I’m not going to be as good, so why should I put myself out there? Why should I be interested in something that’s going to be nothing but a struggle?”

But there is some good news. If you give a girl a robot and some simple tools for programming it, her feelings about computer sciences will be more positive. That’s according to newly published research by Master and others in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

In partnership with Seattle’s Play Works Studio, UW researchers ran a study in which they assigned 96 girls and boys to three different groups to test their feelings about technology.

In the experimental group, the child was taught how to program a “pet” robot using drag-and-drop visual programming on a smart phone. Over 20 minutes, each 6-year-old created a set of instructions that sent the robot motoring along a winding pathway.

Kids in the two control groups either participated in a computer-free storytelling activity or did no activity.

Then the children were asked questions about STEM subjects and their personal interests and abilities.

In research published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, girls who programmed robots had more favorable opinions of their tech abilities and interests. The boys who used the robots also liked programming and robots more than the control groups, but the difference was less significant.

The girls in the experimental group rated their robotics and programming interests and abilities 25 percent higher than the girls in the two control groups. In a video from the research, one little girl says, “man, this is awesome” after programming her turtle robot and watching it successfully navigate its path.

The boys in the experimental group also gave higher marks to the tech activities, but the differences between them and the boy control groups’ answers were smaller.

And the level of interest in computer sciences between the girls and boys who played with the robots was statistically equal.

Regarding the girls’ response to the robots, “I personally wasn’t surprised,” said Adriana Moscatelli, one of the study’s authors and founder and CEO of Play Works Studio, a company that encourages girls to engage with STEM activities.

This works bolsters other studies showing positive effects of exposing girls to robotic programming, she said. That includes research from FIRST Robotics Competition, a nonprofit that organizes robotics programming contests meant to inspire young people to pursue technology and build other skills.

But the study is important, Moscatelli said, because continues to identify the best ways to correct the lack of gender parity in tech.

“It’s a hard problem,” she said. “We won’t solve it in five or 10 years.”

The study’s other authors are Sapna Cheryan and Andrew Meltzoff from the UW. The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

One challenge that remains is figuring out how much exposure is needed to change girls’ opinions in the long-term about their own abilities as well as gender-based stereotypes. It might be the case that the more important thing is to change their self-perception about their computer science skills and interests, and a shift in the stereotypes will follow or become less important.

“What we’re hoping is if you give girls more of these experiences … and they say I’m good with robots and programming, then the stereotype doesn’t have to apply to me,” Master said.

The research found that playing with the robots for the short period didn’t affect the gender stereotypes, which was an expected result. This sort of opinion, the scientists explained, is formed from input from multiple sources and harder to shift.

Moscatelli said that they’ve done other, unpublished research in the classroom where girls and boys did robotic programming. The approach could produce additional positive effects.

Adriana Moscatelli, founder and CEO of Seattle’s Play Works Studio, a company that sells toys meant to encourage children’s interest in STEM.

You may not only change girls’ perceptions and self-confidence, “but also how boys perceive girls,” Moscatelli said. “If you start early and expose both girls and boys, perhaps you can start changing those stereotypes.”

The scientists cautioned against using gender-specific electronic toys that are pink or designed to be feminine and in theory more appealing to girls. The approach can backfire, they warned. The pink electronics can reinforce the differences between girls and boys and increase gender stereotyping. The strategy can also imply that women in the tech fields must themselves be hyperfeminine.

The takeaway for parents and educators is this: “Even if girls don’t seem interested (in robotics and programming), it really matters to give them these opportunities and it might spark the interest,” said Master. “We owe it to them to give them the opportunities.”

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