VEX Robotics Competitions: Gender Differences in Student Attitudes and Experiences

Amanda Sullivan, Marina Umashi Bers
Journal of Information Technology Education: Research  •  Volume 18  •  2019  •  pp. 097-112

Educational robotics competitions are a popular way to increase students’ interest in science and engineering during their K-12 years. However, female students are typically underrepresented in these competitions. The goal of this study is to determine differences in the experiences of male and female robotics competition students in order to better support female students and increase their representation in competition leagues.

VEX Robotics Competitions are one of the fastest-growing educational robotics competitions available to middle school and high school students around the world. Despite growing numbers of participants, VEX programs have a notice-able lack of female participants. In order to create a more diverse and representative program, it is important to investigate why fewer female students participate in the competitions and what can be done to better support female students.

Qualitative and quantitative data were collected from VEX mentors and students through online surveys. A total sample of N=675 VEX mentors and students participated (n=47 students and n=628 mentors). The surveys asked scaled, multiple choice, and free response questions. Through these surveys, the following research questions are answered: 1) What (if any) are the differences between male and female student experiences with VEX? 2) What (if any) are the differences in male and female students’ confidence in their technical ability? and 3) What (if any) are the differences in male and female students’ performance on VEX related robotics team tasks?

This study contributes to the growing body of work on engaging female students, and other underrepresented students, in STEM fields such as programming, engineering, and robotics.

Results demonstrate the male students outnumber female students and male mentors also outnumber female mentors in this sample. Male students are significantly more confident in their general technical ability and their ability to put things together (p<.05) and students of both genders generally wished to have more female students on their teams. Results also indicate that mentors generally perceive their female students as requiring more help and that they are less engaged with construction tasks as compared to male students.

VEX mentors should focus on enhancing female students’ confidence with the construction and building aspects of robotics and ensuring they get the same experience with these tasks as male students. They should consider providing supplemental hands-on training sessions, within or outside of regular team sessions, for students who wish to build confidence and experience in these areas.

Researchers should continue to explore the experiences of female students in robotics competitions, including differences based on grade level, mentor gender, and more. Researchers should additionally look at female students who are not a part of robotics teams (or who have left a robotics team) to understand why these teams do not appeal to them.

Women are still underrepresented in engineering and computer science professions. In order to bridge this gap, it is critical to find effective ways to reach girls in their K-12 years to build their confidence and interest in these fields before they reach college. This study points out critical areas where robotics competition teams should focus on building female students’ confidence.

The findings in this paper present research from year 1 of a multi-year longitudinal study. Future research will continue to track the mentors and students in this study in order to gain information on retention and change over time.

gender, robotics, programming, competitions, STEM
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