Bioengineering professor Holly Golecki leads local Girl Scouts to #BreakTheBias against women in STEM


Kaylan Waldron

Girl Scouts working on their robotics badge
Local Girl Scouts working on their robotics badges

International Women’s Day is dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and a rally for women's equality. The theme for this year is #BreakTheBias. We interviewed bioengineering professor Holly Golecki about being a woman in STEM and how she is helping to break the bias for the next generation of women engineers. 
As an undergraduate student, Golecki studied materials science and engineering as she was fascinated by the mechanisms by which molecular-scale behavior gives rise to macroscopic-material properties. “As I studied materials more, I became fascinated by their interactions with the body and how we could build materials for healthcare applications,” said Golecki. This led to her interest in soft robotics because she saw the importance of materials selection for implanting robots inside the body. 
Golecki mentioned that there were definitely barriers in her experience while studying to be a woman in STEM. However, she emphasized that she was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by amazing female mentors and colleagues throughout her career. 
“My research advisor Dr. Caroline Schauer from Drexel University was so influential in giving me the confidence to shoot for the moon. She created opportunities for me that changed the trajectory of my career,” said Golecki. She strives to pay it forward by creating opportunities and making engineering more accessible.

Illinois student volunteers assist with robotics building activities
Illinois student volunteers assist with robotics activities

Golecki believes that accessibility in engineering education is critical because, “to solve complex problems we need diverse ideas from diverse teams working on those projects.” This means engaging students from historically minoritized groups in engineering throughout the design process. Golecki seeks to address accessibility at a young age as well. “My goal is to help young people understand that they possess the tools and mindset to be an engineer and help break down the invisible walls that exist that keep some students from seeing themselves as engineers,” she said. 
Currently, she is working with  Girl Scout troops from Mohamet at the Daisies and Brownies levels (Troops #2971 and #2779). This opportunity came about when their troop leader Chelsea Wilkerson, contacted the Illinois Robotics Group seeking an opportunity for the scouts to work with a female roboticist for their robotics badge.  The Illinois Robotics Group is part of an ongoing NSF project to bring soft robotics to local schools in Champaign and Urbana, and saw working with the Girl Scouts as a great way to teach soft robotics in a new context. 
During this outreach initiative, the Girl Scouts earned three robotic badges: what robots do, how robots move, and how to design a robot. In order to earn these badges, Golecki and volunteers showed the girls what to do in the lab, helped them build soft robotic grippers, and gave them the chance to design and prototype bio-inspired robots that the girls came up with. On the last day, the instructors led the scouts through a design activity where they identified grippers in nature, added new features to the gripper such as a textured surface and changed the size and shape or number of actuators. Part of the inspiration for this Girl Scouts project came from a volunteer and mechanical engineering student Maya Grant and her recent project with Hello Robot and P&G and also from their previous work conducted with middle schools locally and in India. Golecki hoped that the girls learned many varied applications of robotics such as how they are designed and built. “But if we were able to excite any of the girls about engineering and robotics, that would be the ultimate goal,” she said. 

Girl scout proudly displaying her certificate
Girl Scout Ellison Carpenter with professor Holly Golecki (left)

Sara Lamer, a junior in mechanical science and engineering, also played a key role in organizing and helping with the Girl Scout outreach events. Lamer assisted Golecki with every session and helped implement ideas such as “Draw a Robot” (DART) derived from “Draw an Engineer Task” and the “Draw a Scientist Test” used in previous studies to uncover how students think about people in STEM careers. Often, these drawings can unveil gendered or preconceived notions of who can be a scientist.
Previously, Lamar had worked with Golecki on several soft robotics projects. She found her passion for engineering education and was offered to help with this initiative. She has always wanted engineering to be less intimidating. “It’s been extremely special to me to be a part of this, as I’m often speaking on the lack of engineering concepts in elementary classrooms as well as higher education classrooms in more rural areas of the state,” said Lamar. She hopes to have helped instill confidence in the Girl Scouts when it comes to being a woman in STEM so they can see themselves as engineers of the future. 
Golecki offered some parting advice. “While there can be challenges as a woman in STEM, there are tremendous opportunities too. We have to keep pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible so that our voices are heard and our ideas can be seen in the products and devices being developed.” 

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