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Outside Google’s MP7 building at its Sunnyvale campus, it was a pretty quiet weekend.
But inside, upbeat music was pumping, and the building was bustling with hundreds of teenage girls clad in purple shirts and name tags who all spent the weekend building and testing robots.
Dozens of teams huddled around their plastic toolboxes, which were filled with small screws, sprockets, springs, and plastic and metal components. They worked to perfect their own claw robot on wheels.
This is the second year the Google Girl’s Robotics Workshop has run at the campus. The tech giant sponsors the event and collaborates with the Girl Powered initiative, comprised of members from the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation and VEX Robotics.
The goal of the initiative is to get more girls involved in robotics and science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields, at an earlier age.
“Girls, by and large, are underrepresented in robotics,” said Vicki Grisanti, the director of marketing for the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation.
Grisanti said hosting these kinds of workshops can help girls build confidence in a challenging environment.
“You’re building communication skills, teamwork skills, problem-solving skills,” she said. “These are all things you can develop at a young age doing these competitions, and you take those skills on into your future career.”
Shalini Agrawal, 13, of Los Gatos, was testing out her robot’s ability to flip objects over and push them around with her team Sunday.
“It started in a box and now it’s functional,” she said while looking at the bot as it maneuvered around a foam-lined rink with others like it.
“We built something, and we’re going to use it to compete. We had some help, yes, but it’s something we did. It feels like you accomplished something,” she said.
Only 23 percent of typical VEX Robotics competitors are girls, nearly matching with the 24 percent of women who work in STEM fields.
The Girl Powered initiative wants to help girls get past societal obstacles at an early age, and teach the “universal language” of robotics to all kids.
Shivakumar Venkataraman, a Google vice president of engineering, has been coaching young kids on robotics in his garage for about seven years, and has been a driving force in helping to get this workshop going at Google.
He said the “deep interest” the kids show in working on the robots is special, and it keeps them focused on a team task, instead of their phones.
“And since they have created something, it’s not something that was given to them, they had to create it … they’re really energized,” he said.
Venkataraman said helping to organize this workshop, as well as another weekly robotics mentoring program he facilitates at Google, is simply doing his part to address the large diversity gap at his own and other tech companies.
“Events like this, and participation, and community-based things are the ones that can get them there,” he said, noting that he expects other employees will push for similar events in other fields of tech.
Some volunteers mentoring the girls this weekend were participants in the workshop last year, and in the weekly program, which Venkataraman said could help make this kind of event sustainable.
“I hope there is an effect of reinforcement that goes on over time,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”
Anishi Grover, 12, said she thinks girls make a mistake when they allow themselves to believe robotics is a boys-only field.
“The truth is that girls can do, like, anything,” she said. “Anything that they put their mind to.”