Drawing on girls’ power to learn about robots & engineering

Downtown Express photo by Marina Temkin Work at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, which recently opened a center in Tribeca.
Downtown Express photo by Marina Temkin
Work at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, which recently opened a center in Tribeca.

BY MARINA TEMKIN  |  Growing up, Jenny Young liked playing with dolls. But she preferred working with her hands in her father’s garage workshop, leading her to become an engineer, a field dominated by men.

Now, as owner of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, Young introduces girls to the joys of building and hopes to inspire them to follow her path.

After two years in Gowanus, Young recently opened a second location this spring in Tribeca, where she runs robot-making workshops for boys and girls from prekindergarten through eighth grade.

“Tribeca is a concentrated location of children,” said Young, 35, who threw a grand opening party for more than 300 people on March 22 at her storefront on 528 Canal St. “It is convenient for people from other parts of Manhattan and New Jersey.”

So far the Tribeca location offers weekend classes and party packages. Young will also run summer session courses and intends to start an after-school program in the fall.

There is also a partnership with HowAboutWe.com, a dating and date planning site, through which adult couples can experience the fun of robot making.

Children’s class size varies, but some workshops are already selling out at capacity of 20.

“Kids can make whatever they want,” she said. “We have girls building princesses and fluffy bunnies that move.”

Girls play differently than boys, Young said. She’s found that girls prefer to design and decorate their robots while boys like to make their creation fight.

“Bring in the art and creativity into the process and it will resonate with the girls,” she said.

In a bid to dispel the stereotype that engineering isn’t for girls, Young is organizing what she’s calling the Women in Technology Speaker Series, where “amazing” women in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — will talk to children about their work.

According to the American Association of University Women, only 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in engineering are earned by women. Studies conducted for the group found that cultural issues – including lack of exposure to the profession and a dearth of encouragement from parents and teachers – prevent girls from pursuing engineering.

The Foundry’s Brooklyn location runs a “Girls’ Club” where parents build robots together with their daughters, but the percentage of girls in the mixed-gender classes is 35 percent and growing.

Nicole Hernden, who enrolled her 7-year-old daughter in the Gowanus workshop, said her child immediately took to robot building.

“Neither my husband nor I are engineers, but Brooke is constantly thinking about design,” said Hernden. “I would not be surprised if she becomes an engineer.”

Young said she experienced sexism from professors and classmates as an engineering student at Purdue University.

“A man would never be told you’re too handsome to be an engineer,” she said. “But a woman may hear you’re too pretty to be an engineer.”

Anna Yanishevsky, a self-employed software engineer, said the workshops at the Foundry serve a valuable role in exposing girls to the profession.

“Not many girls play with robots or cars or even Legos,” said Yanishevsky, 33, who was one of the few women in her engineering classes at Brandeis University. “No one encourages girls to take things apart and see how they work, which at the very basic level makes people more attracted to careers in engineering.”

Young encourages parents not to underestimate the value of early childhood exposure.

“A lady once told me that if she has done this [workshops] as a kid she would have worked in something related to math or science,” she said.