IBM Robo Challenge – what difference does ‘girls only’ make?

We’ve been working for a few years now with IBM on the Robo Challenge project that invites teams of children from local primary schools to compete in a series of programming challenges.

This year, for the first time, the competition was exclusively for girls. There’s a significant gender gap in the programming sector – girls are less likely to study STEM subjects at school and only 16% of females have had a career in technology suggested to them, compared with 33% of males (PWC, Women in Tech, 2017). Primary school age is a critical time to get girls interested in and excited by technology.

IBM Girls Robo Challenge 2019 from LondonCLC on Vimeo.

There was certainly a real buzz and excitement in the IBM building as teams of KS2 girls from 12 schools set about their challenges.  Each team had been given a Lego NXT kit, an IBM mentor and 10 weeks to prepare for a series of exciting challenges such as programming their robot to complete dance routine, taking part in a race and designing and programming their own game on Scratch. There was also an X Factor challenge, which was only  assigned to the students in the morning. All schools had to select two pupils from their team to programme the Lego car to complete all elements of the maze with an added feature.

“It’s been massive to come here and see the IBM building and all these people that work here. The girls have lots of questions already about the kind of jobs there are here. They are in London, at IBM and taking part in this big competition”, said one teacher. “The volunteers coming into the school have been really good at talking to the girls about how the activities relate to real life and explaining how they use the same sort of problem-solving in their jobs. The volunteer gave them real-life examples of coding.”

There was real ingenuity and creativity on display.  The question on everyone’s lips was – how DID the children from St Saviour’s Primary School get their Lego robot to go so much faster than everyone else’s? The answer….They built the robot using cogs as gears. (Watch it in action!)  It wasn’t quite enough to win, though. That accolade went to Merton Park Primary School.

But what difference did the competition being girls only make? London CLC’s Rowan Roberts, who has been involved in the previous mixed challenges and organised this year’s competition shares her thoughts:

  • The girls had the opportunity to work within the headquarters of a prestigious tech company, which makes the possibility of working in this industry in the future feel accessible to them.
  • One of the judges was a woman who participated in the competition as a child and spoke to them about how the skills they were practising would prepare them for a future in technology. This, and the all-female judging panel in general, was particularly significant in terms of representation.
  • The fact that the event was girls only this year meant that team roles couldn’t be allocated along gender lines; all of the programming challenges as well as the design and presentation elements were completed by girls. Though it is by no means always the case, one way that gender roles can creep into mixed gender teams is the allocation of different roles such as costume design vs tackling the unseen programming challenge. Boys often feel more confident to take on the programming due to a range of factors including exposure to technology at home and general social expectations (find out more about this our blog post and podcast on gender and computing), but this year everything was done by girls – and they rose to the challenge spectacularly.
  • The X-factor – unseen programming – challenge was this year inspired by Greta Thunberg and was all about tackling climate change as we felt it was important to showcase an inspirational young woman who has taken such a proactive role in shaping the future for her generation.
  • It was really interesting to watch the girls play one another’s games, and see how they had injected elements of their own interests into the designs, which seemed to make them particularly exciting and interesting to the other participants

Teachers agreed. Katie Bell from Crown Lane Primary commented, “the competition is great for encouraging the children to think about jobs in technology. Having the support from Afeefa and Howard from IBM  helped give the children an insight about what it is like to work in technology. Visiting the IBM building was also very inspiring.”

Her colleague Ruth Grimwood added, “the amount of teamwork, perseverance, collaboration, problem solving and creativity needed was almost more important than the programming skills they developed.  They all got so much from being part of the project, and having the final day at IBM was really inspiring for them all.”

Find out more about this year’s IBM Robo Challenge in the live blog from the day.

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Upcoming CPD

Summer primary school computing conference
Summer primary school computing conference

This event will build upon the Autumn computing conference by inviting subject leaders to reflect on their year in the role, sharing their successes and challenges. It will also introduce new ideas, tools and approaches through talks and practical activities led by members of the CLC team, with opportunities for attendees to share their own expertise and experience. Over the course of the conference activities will touch on the three main areas of the computing curriculum: computer science, digital literacy and information technology. We will also feature advice and examples illustrating the use of technology to support blended learning.

- 15:30
Computing subject leaders, Teachers...
Creative Arts, Digital and children – CLC meets More Than Robots online
Creative Arts, Digital and children - CLC meets More Than Robots online

Combining forces for the first time, the Connected Learning Centre and More Than Robots have created a session for teachers, youth organisations, researchers and policymakers interested in the digital provision of creative arts for primary aged pupils.


The Play Observatory - Prof. John Potter

“In their own words”: Westminster Abbey & CLC digital projects - Sian Shaw

Building (and maintaining) a city-wide primary arts curriculum to raise attainment - Kate Fellows

More to be added soon

This interactive and inclusive meet up will include inspiring examples of how technology can be used to support learning in music, visual art and drama in person and online at home drawing on our experiences as Tate Exchange associates and our partnership work with a range of cultural institutions.

This informal event is an opportunity to discuss real examples of what does/doesn’t work, meet colleagues from other sectors working on similar challenges and share useful research, news or updates

The morning will include case study presentations (details below) followed by a Q&A. There will also be an opportunity for a rapid sharing round for launches, project updates or requests for help and a short break to avoid zoom brain drain.

- 11:30
KS1, KS2
Subject leaders, Teachers...

Upcoming Special projects

The News Project
- 14:25

Special project in collaboration with First News Education

For a third year, building on two successful previous projects, we are once again partnering with the children’s newspaper First News, fellow member of the national Making Sense of Media and News Literacy networks. This special project with a literacy, PSHE and citizenship, as well as computing focus, highlights our specialist interest in this important aspect of digital and critical literacy.

The News Project will enable participating classes from year 5 to immerse themselves in news and current affairs using First News and the Bett award-winning First News iHUB, which will be provided free of charge during the school-based part of the project over a six week period. Under the guidance of their teacher, pupils will be supported in their development as a community of fully informed news readers. Classes will test their new critical skills and knowledge in the culminating virtual celebration event which will include a news competition and team-based critical literacy and editorial activities. After the event, schools will be able to use the resources from the day in their school.

The project will launch with an introductory CPD session for teachers to set the context, demonstrate resources and to plan for the school-based activities. 

Initial CPD session - Thursday 21st October 4pm-5.00pm. 

Project work undertaken in school - October and November.

Special event - Thursday 25th November 9.30am-2.45pm.

The Garden Museum

The CLC is once again partnering with the Garden Museum to offer a partnership project for KS1 pupils (primarily suited to Yr2). Located next to Lambeth Palace on the bank of the Thames, the museum has an inspiring collection that provides the ideal stimulus for young learners to explore the world around them.

Pupils will use technology alongside the museum’s collection to explore the wonderful world of seeds.

  • How are they planted?
  • How do they spread?
  • What is inside them?

 The Garden Museum has a large collection of seeds and tools that pupils will engage with.

These half-day sessions will take place at the Garden Museum.

There is a limited number of dates available, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

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