Google engineer partners with Girl Scouts on robot-making STEM program

Inside a Silicon Valley lab,  the whirring of wheels and tiny electronic motors fills the room. 

It's the sound of young students' minds put into motion. About a dozen middle school and high school girls talk together, getting excited about gears and getting down to nuts and bolts. 

It's quickly clear, this isn't your typical Girl Scout troop meetup. The teams are designing robots. 

Standing amidst the teams huddled around tables bearing boxes of metal parts and screwdrivers, Kaushik Shivakumar, a high school senior gives advice. 

"They're going to be moving in the same direction and at the same speed if you use the same size sprockets," Kaushik said pointing to a partially-finished creation. 

It is an after-school program, that is entering its second year through a new partnership between the Girl Scouts of Northern California and Google started by Shivakumar "Shiv" Venkataraman, a Google Vice-President of Engineering. 

"How can we bring more girls into tech from a very young age?" Venkataraman asked. 

He says he saw a need after his own children Kaushik and Nidhya became interested in robotics. His son Kaushik first showed an interest in building robots. Then his daughter took it up. When they started showing up at state and world competitions, however, they noticed something.

"We were like where did all the girls go?" said Nidhya Shivakumar.

"I realized something had to be done, right, just so girls could see they're not alone in this and they could see there are other girls excited about this. That's really important," said Kaushik.

So with their father who approached Google with the idea, they launched the after school pilot program. Organizers recruit volunteer mentors from Google to help the girls. One mentor is software engineer Nupur Garg, who knows the challenges of being a woman in tech.

She says sometimes to win, you must learn to fail. 

"So despite whatever obstacles come their way and whatever negatives might exist, it's really helpful to have a place to come to where it's not about getting first place or winning. It's about learning and growing," said Garg. 

The lab reverberates with shouts of excitement and sometimes, dismay. 

"Oh no...oh no..." says one team as their robot falls apart inside the competition ring. 

It's a lesson in problem solving and teamwork.

"If we try it the other way I don't think it will work," says one girl named Soledad of Santa Clara, discussing a solution with two other girls. 

"We get to argue with each other," said another student from Sunnyvale who goes by the name Guntas. 

Arguing can be a good thing, the team said.

"Because we get to hear each other and combine each other's ideas," explained Priscila Gomez, a student from Santa Clara.

Already one of the advanced teams has qualified for the state championship.

Venkataraman says the goals of the program aren't just to teach the students about building robots. The program is also about building confidence. 

"They know about engineering. They know how to program, they know how to work on a team. They know how to compete and strategize, they learn so many skills here, that I feel like they're ready for the real world" said Venkataraman.

The Girl Scouts can earn a patch for robotics and organizers hope the program will find additional partners to reach more girls in the future. 

"We're hoping to expand again beyond Google to other companies throughout the Bay Area so we can bring programming like this to other areas throughout the council," said Brenda Gabel, Girl Scouts of Northern California Partnerships Director.

Venkataraman says it's just a start, and he hopes it's one that could open doors for these girls to a lifelong career.

"That's my real hope, that these girls feel the confidence coming out of this program and say I can go and be in any tech company I want," said Venkataraman. 

More than 80 Girl Scouts are taking part in this pilot program. They have a competition in the lab on January 12.

For the students, though, no matter who takes first place, all of them in many ways will be coming out winners.