In 2012 the students in the VEX Robotics program created by the Oak Park Education Foundation (OPEF) skewed heavily toward boys. Just 9 percent of the participants were girls. A year later the OPEF had pushed that number up to 14 percent.
This year the outreach to District 97's female students continues and the program has reached 18 percent girls. Mary Beth Hausken, VEX Robotics program coordinator, credits a portion of that increase to the fact that female students are gradually seeing other girls join and are thereby encouraged to participate as well.
The increase in the number of female participants may also have something to do with the girls' only robotics workshop hosted last week by the foundation.
In 2013 the OPEF opened its first robotics workshop up to local Girl Scout troops, said Hausken. Within 24 hours, she said, every spot in the program was filled.
This year's event on Thursday, May 22, was expanded to include all D97 5-8 grade girls.
The all-girls league of technology enthusiasts came to Percy Julian Middle School on Thursday to design and build their own remote-controlled robots and then test them by competing against other teams.
"We're building an atmosphere that's supportive," said Hausken.
At the workshop there were a number of female adult helpers and the group was joined by Oak Park resident and viaForensics president and co-founder Chee Kim.
Kim and her husband, Andrew Hoog, started the mobile security company in 2009. They aim, she said, to help people become more knowledgeable about their mobile devices.
She first became aware of VEX Robotics through a Mom Mail email chain, then her involvement grew to sponsorship and volunteering.
"We really believe in the philosophy of the program," said Kim, a finalist for the Women in Tech Award at the 3rd annual Moxie Awards. "We really want girls to be encouraged and not intimidated."
Both Kim and Hausken said that they want the girls to know that there are job opportunities available for women in the fields of science and technology.
At viaForensics 25 percent of the Oak Park-based company's 50 employees are women, said Kim. Two of her female employees joined her at the workshop.
While each team and all the facilitators were packed in a demonstration room, Hausken told the group, "what you're doing here could get you a job at their company one day," motioning to Kim and her colleagues.
The comment was greeted with a resounding "Yay!" from the group of 30 student participants.
Some of OPEF's other initiatives to help girls explore technology include an all-girls class at the BASE Camp Gadget Day, increasing the number of female teacher-coaches — at the moment three of the seven teacher-coaches for the VEX Robotics program are women -- and training high school mentors.