How robotics competitions can help get girls into STEM

young Japanese girl making friends with robot

As the Competition Support Manager for VEX Robotics in the UK, Bridie Gaynor has witnessed first-hand the positive impact educational robotics can have on primary and secondary students.

Bridie’s role requires her to travel frequently around the UK to facilitate the smooth running of local and regional events, with the competition season culminating every year for the VEX UK National Finals in March. These events are comprised of the VEX IQ Challenge (VIQC) and the VEX Robotics Competition (VRC), designed respectively for schoolchildren at Key Stage 2 & 3 and Key Stages 3 to 5. Whilst VIQC robots are created by teams of students using plastic, snap-together parts, and VRC robots are built with metal & steel parts, both platforms feature impressive control systems, including a brain that can be programmed using VEXcode IQ Blocks (powered by Scratch Blocks) or VEXcode Text.

What is perhaps most striking about the competitions that Bridie attends is the increasing number of young females who are participating. At the 2019 VEX UK National Finals, more than 50 per cent of the 700 students competing were female, a highly promising figure considering the current STEM shortage and the level of engineering, programming and design skills required to compete. Bridie hopes that she can inspire even more females to take part in the future, as the events continue to grow in stature:

“It’s amazing to think just how many female students are getting involved in VEX competitions and at such a young age, particularly when you consider the lack of gender diversity in STEM industries.”

“What makes VEX stand out from the crowd is the perfectly balanced practical and theoretical aspects of both the VEX IQ system and VEX EDR system.”

“We need to be showing girls that engineering, coding and tech isn’t just for boys, it’s for everyone and there’s so many different avenues in STEM to discover.”

Having worked at VEX Robotics for over six years, Bridie has been part of the journey of several all-girls teams who have been successful in serving as ambassadors for STEM in the wider community, including East Barnet’s Girls of Steel and Welwyn Garden City’s Microbots, both of whom have shared their experiences with tech-industry heavyweights form across the globe.

With the growth of the VEX community and the increasing uptake of female students competing overall, Bridie says it’s important to have more women in leadership roles like her to inspire the future generations:

“What’s fantastic about my job is that I get to serve as something of a role model that girls can look up to.”

“It’s great to be in a position where aspiring STEM students can see that women can really succeed in these industries and take charge of what is typically a male-dominated environment.”

“I truly believe that robotics systems like VEX give females a chance to get involved in STEM in a fun, exciting and engaging capacity, whilst setting students up for future careers in STEM”.

Bridie Gaynor featuredAbout the author

Bridie Gaynor is the Competition Support Manager in the UK for VEX Robotics.

She is responsible for supporting VEX events and teams across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Bridie Gaynor featured

Inspirational Woman: Bridie Gaynor | Competition Support Manager, VEX Robotics

Bridie Gaynor

Bridie Gaynor is the Competition Support Manager in the UK for VEX Robotics.

She is responsible for supporting VEX events and teams across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My name is Bridie Gaynor, I’m 29 and I work for VEX Robotics as the Competition Support Manager in the UK. My role involves working closely with schools and students, running robotics competitions up and down the UK with the help of Event Partners. The aim of my work is to inspire and engage young students into STEM education pathways and STEM careers in the future. Our VEX IQ & VEX EDR platforms are designed to help students explore the possibilities of STEM through design, building and coding robots! Whether it’s in the curriculum or through our extracurricular VEX IQ Challenge and VEX Robotics Competition, it’s motivating to see students react so positively to VEX.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I wanted to be a teacher once I’d finished college but became more interested in having a hands-on educational role upon completing my course. VEX has provided such a wonderful opportunity to couple both my passion for helping and educating students, as well as involving a practical approach through travelling Europe, Asia and the US to support resellers and schools run their competitions.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

The biggest challenge for me when I started my journey with VEX was most definitely overcoming the programming aspect of the job. As the role required me to understand different elements of coding, I realised that with most things, the best way to learn is to throw yourself in at the deep end and be prepared to make mistakes – everyone does! Now I have a complete understanding of a multitude of programming software and I put this down to perseverance and commitment.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My biggest achievement to date has been to successfully run the first stand alone VEX UK National Finals event in 2018. This was made even more remarkable by the fact that more than half of the VEX IQ teams in attendance had more female robotics students than male students – smashing the current statistics surrounding women in STEM. The event was attended by over 1000 students and 120 teams from the around the UK, marking it as a huge success.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my team and their belief in me to succeed in this role. I have overcome confidence and self-esteem issues, and this is down to their continued encouragement and support in me. Now I have full confidence in my abilities and leadership.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

It’s so important to have the right attitude and not be afraid to explore new ways of doing things. We are now living in such exciting and interesting times to be involved in tech! Hard work, creativity and an open mind in this industry can take you a lot further than grades alone can. It’s also essential that you stay ahead of the curve by researching the latest tech trends and keeping on top of current affairs in the STEM industry.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I do believe there are still barriers, we need to change our perceptions of technology and STEM altogether to see real change in the industry. Initiatives like Girl Powered, which focuses on gender equality in robotics and STEM for students can change this. It’s about adopting the view that tech is for everyone, male or female, it doesn’t matter. Once we achieve this, barriers will be significantly reduced and we will begin to achieve our full potential as a society.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Tech organisations need to be more inclusive overall and provide equal opportunities to everyone. The most important thing that can be done is to ensure that no matter what gender, age etc., is that people are hired and promoted through businesses based purely on merit. This approach will change the landscape of the tech industry for the better.

There is currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

It’s important that we educate young people on the achievements and success women can have in the industry. I believe that by educating young females that STEM is for everyone, we can change the way the world views technology, engineering and science. It would be great to offer day trips or placement to female students at large tech organisations so they can see for themselves that the tech and wider STEM industry has so many different avenues to offer.

 What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I usually read up on the latest publications and online sites such as Wired, TechRadar and TechCrunch. The Register also has a lot of information on the newest emerging tech. Podcasts like This Week in Tech are also very enjoyable.