Connecting The Dots

Eager to share their love of STEM, robotics students partner with local organization 9 Dots to provide workshops and mentorship to underserved girls.

Two years ago, Amanda Y. ‘18 learned about 9 Dots, a non-profit group focused on the goal of giving underserved students better access to math, coding, and STEM education. Inspired by the organization’s dedication to providing high-quality classes for underserved students, Amanda approached STEM+ Program Co-Head Mr. Witman and Community Outreach Program Head Ms. Wright about a Marlborough/9 Dots collaboration. 

At that time, 9 Dots had just moved to a new, large space and was actively growing their programming, which included weekend classes in coding and robotics. When the Marlborough teachers approached them about a collaboration, 9 Dots decided to invite the Marlborough Robotics team to co-teach the existing robotics curriculum to an all-girl classroom. 

“One of the foremost goals of bringing the Marlborough Robotics Team on board was to provide female mentors for our young students,” said Laura Lee, Special Initiatives Manager at 9 Dots. “We also wanted to engage with our local community, provide volunteer opportunities, and inspire young adults to take an active role in furthering STEM education for students that come from different backgrounds.”

Having already developed the curriculum for the class, Executive Director Josh Taylor joined Lee in teaching the existing lesson plans to the Marlborough girls. But they quickly realized that the Marlborough girls already had significant experience with the design process, so Lee suggested the girls take full ownership of that section of the curriculum.

“They were able to make connections with their personal experience, from their team and from their projects,” said Lee. “They started creating presentations and developing their own activities and hands-on participatory simulations where our students acted out the role of the robots themselves. It worked out really well.”

During the 2015-2016 school year, the Marlborough team taught six classes at 9 Dots. This school year the team was only able to fit in three classes due to a change in their own robotics tournament schedule, but still worked with 60 girls in total over both years. 

During the class sessions, the Marlborough team used the Stanford Design Method, with which the 9 Dots students were already familiar, and combined the 9 Dots circular design process curriculum with the NASA design process that the team uses. Then they walked the students through prototyping, testing, and design refinement. At the end of the class, the students had a finished robot to compete in either a Sumo wrestling-style competition or a maze competition. 

Both the 9 Dot team and the Marlborough girls were excited about the results of the collaboration.

“We had never seen that type of engagement from our students before. Our middle school girls really thrived in a classroom led by the Marlborough girls,” said Lee.

During the design process, the students went through an iterative design process where students brainstormed as many creative designs as possible. 

“In years prior, the ideas would be very simple - a wedge or a ramp. The students were excited to start designing, but they were a little limited in their creativity,” recalls Lee. “But when the Marlborough girls came in with their energy and examples of their ideate process, something clicked and something blossomed and they started going crazy with ideas. They started putting them on post-its, taping them to the walls so they could see each other’s ideas. In that moment our students were able to relate to each other and get to know each other on a new level. Before, it felt more like a classroom, but in that moment, it felt like they were a team.”

“I think I see a little of myself in them, actually,” said Marlborough Robotics Team Captain Niki B. ‘17 of the 9 Dots students. Niki joined robotics in 10th grade with no experience at all. When picking her extracurriculars for the year, she actually just chose robotics at random.

“I was able to cultivate an interest in STEM and robotics through learning the design process and building something from scratch, something I could be proud of,” explains Niki. “I guess it’s sort of a stereotype. People think that STEM is for nerds and it’s all building and math and glasses. But it was nice to show a different side of it,” she continues. “We’d talk about robotics and then they’d ask me questions about my life. They were really curious about Prom, so I told them about my experience. So, you can have fun. You can be a ‘girlie girl’ and do robotics. You can do anything, really.”

“I joke that robotics was the best peer pressure decision I ever made,” laughs Amanda. She signed up in 7th grade because her friend did. But she agrees that the experience has taught her quite a bit, including the fact that she’s not interested in STEM as a career. Instead, she’s become more attracted to the fields of sociology and anthropology, in part due to the teamwork aspect of the competitions where teams create “alliances” with teams from other schools.

“In the tournament elimination rounds, the top four teams become captains and choose two other teams to join them. There’s a process where you have to negotiate and try to figure out who you want to connect with and evaluate why your two teams would complement each other, both in terms of personality and robotics. Then you strategize together, focusing on the strengths of each robot to get the most points,” said Amanda. “These interactions between people is something that robotics has peaked my interest in.”

Both Amanda and Niki will continue with the robotics team as seniors next school year and are eager to return for a third year of teaching at 9 Dots. 

“Our girls are looking forward to it as well,” said Lee. “They’re always asking when the Marlborough girls will be coming in next.”


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