Glitter and Robotics Collide to Groom San Diego Girls for Engineering Jobs

Friday was the final day of Qcamp at Qualcomm's Thinkabit lab in Sorrento Valley, where 30 middle-school girls were putting the finishing touches on dancing marionettes.

The dolls were linked to smartphones via Bluetooth. The girls coded apps that controlled the marionettes using buttons or the phone's motion sensor. With a click or a swoop of the phone, Popsicle sticks attached to motors moved up and down, lifting arms and legs.

Over the past three summers, these girls have been attending the engineering camp as part of an experiment to see what keeps girls in the engineering pipeline. Researchers say middle school is a crucial time if you want to close the gender gap in engineering. That's when girls often begin to lose interest in math and science, they say.

Instructor Saura Naderi said the key — for all kids but especially girls, who are less exposed to engineering — is showing that the field is just another medium for creativity.

"It's not some daunting, scary, 'I'm going to be in a box coding,'" Naderi said. "It's anything that you want it to be, whether you want to build smartphones or spaceships. You can also do interactive art or fashion or toys or roller coasters."

Neha Roshan, 12, and her partner built a celebrity walking the red carpet. The marionette wore an aqua blue gown. String lights poked through a backdrop to give the effect of paparazzi.

"We put a lot into the dress," Neha said. "I didn't know that this project would have a lot of creativity until I started it, and then it was like ideas were everywhere."

Neha said she had always planned on being a fashion designer, but Qcamp has expanded her definition of designer.

"Now I'm thinking of being an engineer where you get to make fun projects like this, and also maybe a designer so that you think of the plan and then other people execute it and then you get to see the final product and it's super fun," she said.

Girls from all over San Diego County were selected for the camp via a lottery. The camp has had 100 percent retention since beginning in 2014. Organizers hope that means the girls will stay on the engineering path.

But challenges remain — among them, the gender pay gap. Qualcomm itself recently settled a gender discrimination lawsuit for $19.5 million dollars and is reviewing its policies to ensure equal pay for its female engineers.

Qcamp instructor Naderi, who earned an engineering degree from UC San Diego, said she tells the girls they will run into barriers, but that those barriers will diminish as women in engineering become the norm.

A report on what worked in Qcamp is expected later this year from UC Berkeley.

Written by Megan Burks, Education Reporter at KPBS.org - Contact