Girls robotics team competing for Canada, eager to champion EV sector’s women-in-STEM potential
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Mar 8, 2023
Emma Jarratt

Manufacturing in Canada is moving to a zero-emission future. Attracting female talent to do it , like the up-and-comers on Équipe Francobotique, is a generational opportunity

Équipe Francobotique is a FIRST LEGO LEAGUE all-girls team of eight students based in Aurora, Ontario. Team members are in Grades 5 to 8, and attend two different French-language schools in Aurora. Photo: Équipe Francobotique

Manufacturing in Canada is moving to a zero-emission future. Attracting female talent to do it , like the up-and-comers on Équipe Francobotique, is a generational opportunity

Renée Northrup is an Aurora, Ont., math teacher, turned high-school computer science instructor, turned robotics team coach.

She has lived out her career as a woman in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But as she progressed in her chosen field, Northrup saw something that concerned her.

“I noticed that my children (along with the children in their classes) really had an interest in everything STEM-related. But there wasn’t much available at their school,” Northrup recalls in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

The observation led Northrup to speak with school administrators. Eventually, she got the green light to start a 12-week robotics club at her daughters’ — Suzanne and Danielle — school.

“I had about 50/50 participation, girls and boys,” says Northrup.

Fast forward to today and Northrup’s tiny after school program has evolved. They are now an all-girl, all-French, internationally competitive robotics team that acts as a beacon in the women-in-STEM push. Specifically, the team is starting to address real-world challenges when it comes to EV infrastructure.

The student talent comes from the École élémentaire catholique Saint-Jean and École intermédiaire catholique Renaissance in Aurora. Together, the Équipe Francobotique squad is soon heading to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where they will represent Canada in the First Lego League Razorback Open Invitational competition.

When Northrup looks at the importance of teams like Équipe Francobotique in the Canadian landscape she sees a huge industry opportunity.

“If you can get them involved early and young, they gain that confidence that they can do it and they can be very good at it,” says Northrup.

Women in STEM a wider industry challenge

Cultivating confidence in young girls and women to feel enthusiastic in STEM — particularly in the automotive and manufacturing industries — and see it as an arena where women belong is a career-long goal for Nour Hachem-Fawaz, president and founder of Build a Dream, a national non-profit organization focusing on inclusion and equity in the workplace.

Image of Nour Hachem-Fawaz
Nour Hachem-Fawaz is the founder and president of Build a Dream. Photo: Twitter/@nour_unfiltered

“I looked across Ontario and broke down the numbers for female apprentices as of 2020 StatsCan data for general machining. There was 139 female general machinists in Ontario, versus 7,000-something men,” says Hachem-Fawaz in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

“That shocks me — especially if we look at all the investments and funding being allocated to getting more women into skilled trades. We’re only at 139. You could probably gather them all into one room.”

Based in Windsor, Ont., Hachem-Fawaz made sure Build A Dream sits in the beating heart of Canada’s automotive sector. Windsor is, arguably, the epicentre of the Canadian industry’s pivot towards EV and battery manufacturing.

Hachem-Fawaz believes the gains from a careful, deliberate approach to making the transition inclusive could revolutionize auto manufacturing in Canada beyond even the most optimistic forecasts.

“We often say you can’t be what you can’t see. And the reality of it is we need to be able to see more women in these spaces,” says Hachem-Fawaz.

“You really have to, in my in my experience and recommendation, look at the psychological aspect and the self esteem, confidence component and ask ourselves, ‘Do we have enough tools and resources that will support a young woman that does decide to go down this path?’ And, so, the question remains: what is still missing in the talent development pipeline?”

Solving real-world problems

For Équipe Francobotique, bringing innovative ideas to life is an important and fun part of the squad. But that’s only part of the value of the experience.

A core component of student participation in Équipe Francobotique is innovating to solve real world problems. It’s a challenge which, most recently, inspired them come up with plans and a successful proposal to retrofit the nearby Upper Canada Mall to provide green electricity for its EV chargers.

“By pairing wind and solar energy the electric vehicle can be charged with 100 per cent green energy,” says Grade 7 student and Équipe Francobotique teammate, Danielle Northrup, one of Renée’s daughters.

Équipe Francobotique’s innovations for their local mall include solar awnings, lamp post solar panels and lamp post wind turbines. They built a 30:1 scale model of the entire mall complex with their charging ideas built in. Then the team made their pitch.

“We met with the Upper Canada Mall, their property manager and the operations manager, and they absolutely loved our ideas,” says Danielle.

“They found our idea of hybrid lamp posts really creative because it has a vertical axis wind turbine and solar panels. They said that they would like to integrate their ideas into all of their different properties.”

To say the brainstorming, execution and pitch were a success is being modest, says Northrup. The team went on to present their ideas to the mayor of Aurora and town council. The municipality is committing to converting their entire fleet to electric vehicles.

“The students’ presentation really made them think about not only should we be installing EV charging stations, but we should be considering what are the source of this electricity,” says Renée Northrup.

“They’re looking at implementing solar panels and possibly some of the wind turbines that the kids have suggested, very close to where the EV charging stations are located, so they can use that energy directly.”

Seizing the opportunity for women in STEM

The Équipe Francobotique team is just one example of girls and women in STEM making a real world impact. In this case, before any of the students even graduate high school.

Just noting what has already come out of that pocket of potential, Hachem-Fawaz believes attracting female talent widespread across the auto sector will have profound impacts on the industry.

“It’s in the best interest of companies” to deliberately and quickly address inclusivity within their ranks, Hachem-Fawaz says.

Some small, but meaningful changes could be adapting the descriptors used in the autosector to signal a more inclusive space. Swapping out phrases like “manpower” for “people power” makes a difference, says Hachem-Fawaz. So does matching female workers to mentors within the workplace to ensure their desired progress through the ranks.

“It’s literally a strategy that needs to be built and reviewed and revised and improved, daily, weekly, yearly,” says Hachem-Fawaz.

“Resisting this type of change to your culture to your policies to your practices is going to put you behind on so many levels in comparison to having a competitive advantage.”

But work can be done well before women and girls enter the workforce. Schools must champion STEM being a career option that they could be excellent at, says Renée Northrup.

“We have to encourage participation in STEM to girls — and boys — right at the beginning of school in junior kindergarten and kindergarten and make it available to everyone,” says Northrup.

“It’s something that’s valuable for absolutely every student out there.”

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