Ten girls and one boy crowded around a table at the Finney County Public Library rolling, sculpting and flattening Play Doh into soon-to-be science projects. The lesson was educational in more than a few ways: it taught kids about circuitry, but also that girls absolutely deserved a seat at the table.
The Friday workshop, “Girls, Engineering, and Robotics,” or GEAR, was the third in an ongoing series of scientific exploration classes for girls, funded through a $5,000 Western Kansas Community Foundation’s Women of Purpose grant awarded to Great Plains MakerSpace this year.
Lead GEAR teacher Sarah Drubinskiy, who also teaches math and robotics at Charles O. Stones Intermediate Center, said that last month, girls played with frequencies on Micro Bit wristband transmitters and designed and coded their own video games that they played with handmade and hand-connected Play Doh controllers.
Drubinskiy ran the class with her husband, Yuriy, who teaches math and coaches robotics at Garden City High School. The two are gearing up for their third robotics summer camp for local kids, which this year will introduce kids from third to 12th grade to the field. The Drubinskiys also helped teacher Matt Horney kick-start a robotics team at Jennie Barker Elementary School and hope to expand to more schools and more teachers.
A lot of the Drubinskiys’ projects have focused on introducing robotics to local students of all ages. GEAR hopes to take that goal a step further, Drubinskiy said, by showing young girls that robotics and engineering is as much for them as it is for their male classmates.
"There's too many things now where it's like 'This is a girl thing' and it's a doll that doesn't do anything. 'This is a boy thing' and it's a chemistry set. We need to make them see that this is not a girl, this is not a boy thing. You can do whatever you want,” she said.
Friday’s lesson focused on circuitry, letting girls from kindergarten to sixth grade plug LED lights and wires connected to a battery into conductive and insulative Play Doh. Once Drubinskiy covered the basics, she had the girls pick out words from a deck of cards offering ideas for Play Doh sculptures that they could combine with circuits.
The designs had to incorporate the two kinds of Play Doh in a way that would complete the circuits so lights or small speakers would turn on. Two sisters created a snake and kraken with glowing LED eyes. Another made a crab with insulative white Play Doh, cleanly connecting the conductive claws and body so that the attached lights could receive power.
Across the table, a girl pulled a magnetic doodle board out of her backpack when discussing plans with her friend, drawing a makeshift blueprint of their in-progress Play Doh project.
Several of the girls were enthusiastic about many aspects of science. Isa Saddler, 9, loved conducting crazy experiments, while her sister, Serenity, 11, liked building biomes. Seven-year-old Maddison Wasinger’s favorite part about the subject was “seeing what happens at the end” of a lesson or experiment. And all three enjoyed the material as much as they learned from it.
“I think my friends are going to be jealous,” Serenity said.
It was an hour built on trial and error, where girls would work with each other and with Drubinskiy to see which combinations and designs worked or worked best. Part of the lesson with robotics was being OK with messing up more often than succeeding, Drubinskiy said. The girls took the learning experiences in stride.
Early in the lesson, when the girls were plugging the lights and battery wires into two separate pieces of Play Doh to complete the circuit, one girl’s model wouldn’t light up. Drubinskiy walked the class through what she had done differently and what went wrong.
"Let's look at this,” Drubinskiy told the girl. “I like this. I like that you made this mistake because it's an awesome mistake. Good job.”
It was those moments, when students tried things on their own, when they fiddled and branched off and tested the lesson in their own way, that showed the information was clicking, Drubinskiy said.
“That's when it's just like 'Oh, they get it.' They start putting more LEDs on. We started with one. 'Well I put five on there and it worked.' 'I put three on and none of them worked’…” Drubinskiy said. “They're not just sitting there listening, they're thinking, 'Boy, if I do this, what will happen?' 'It didn't work. Why didn't it work?' ... It means that they're really thinking."
When Drubinskiy was her students’ age, she said her dad would run experiments with vinegar and baking soda. She was always interested in space. When she met Yuriy, his passion for robotics and circuitry was contagious. Being able to pass on that enthusiasm for science, especially to young girls, was nice.
“If you only see guys doing it, then it's hard to see yourself doing it. So I'm glad that I'm someone that they can look at and say 'She does all this stuff. I can do this stuff too,’” Drubinskiy said.
Later this summer, Drubinskiy said GEAR will introduce girls to VEX Robotics kits and gauge interest for a team that could compete at upcoming VEX competitions, including one Drubinskiy hopes to help plan in Garden City. As the summer comes to a close, she said GEAR will hold workshops once a month with a few special themed events.
Drubinskiy said she hoped the girls remembered the lesson they learned that afternoon. But, more importantly, she hoped they wanted to keep exploring different elements of science, engineering and robotics.
“This is to get that in their head at a young age that this can be for me. This is a lot of fun,” Drubinskiy said. "And then when people say things like 'Isn't robotics for boys?' 'No, I've been doing this since I was 6.’”
Contact Amber Friend at email@example.com.