A new book from robotics engineer Marita Cheng uses generative AI to encourage girls to enter engineering, a field still dominated by men in Australia and abroad.
Robotics engineer, non-profit founder and girls in STEM advocate Marita Cheng AM has a long list of achievements. Being the founder of the student-run engineering organisation Robogals and the robotics company Aubot, and being named Young Australian of the Year in 2012 and one of Forbes’ Top 50 Women in Tech 2018, are only some of them.
Her latest endeavour furthers her goal to inspire girls into science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) – now using the written word.
“In January 2021, Open AI released its image generation model DALL-E as a closed beta,” Cheng told create. “Then in August 2022, Stability AI released their model for anyone to use. That’s when people got excited.”
She decided to make the most of the DALL-E technology in her STEM advocacy work.
“I thought it would be fun to try and create something that could last and be of value,” she said. “So I wrote a book.”
That book, Smart Girl Books, features curated illustrations produced by DALL-E and comes at a time when the number of girls in tech and engineering remains low.
The Australian Government’s 2023 STEM Equity Monitor, which reports on the current state of STEM gender equity in Australia and measures changes and trends, reveals that new enrolments in STEM subjects in the final year of high school have nearly reached gender parity.
The proportion of girls enrolling in STEM subjects is now 47 per cent, however the proportion of girls specifically in engineering and related technologies remains significantly lower at 23 per cent.
According to Cheng, who is currently working out of Silicon Valley, the gender disparity is clear.
“When I visit the Bay Area, it’s still overwhelmingly male-dominated,” she explained. “Even in my field. I’m part of various women in AI and robotics groups – and they’re too small.
“We’re not getting enough girls coming through the funnel to go head-to-head with boys.”
Part memoir, part exemplar
The book is part memoir, telling the story of Cheng’s childhood growing up in Cairns, and part inspirational guide, offering an example for the girls of today to work from when considering what possibilities their own futures hold.
“I’ve tried to make it accessible to young girls, and get them to realise that achieving big things is not that hard,” she said. “It’s not like success magically appears out of nothing.
“I’m a girl from regional Australia who struggled a lot. I tried a lot of things that didn’t work. But then I worked hard and made some robots.”
It’s that sense of open possibility that led Cheng to include a sequence in Smart Girl Books that shines a light on her area of expertise, robotics.
“I wanted to give kids a glimpse into how I build robots,” she said, adding that those pages are designed to be accessible without being overly simplistic.
Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO FTSE HonFIEAust praised Cheng’s efforts to promote STEM among an underrepresented demographic.
“This is important work that extends Marita’s engagement with young female students to help encourage more girls into STEM subjects and hopefully to consider engineering as a career,” Madew said.
“It’s exciting to see this next phase from the founder of the all-important Robogals movement, which has seen great success in its ability to inspire girls to get involved in science and technology.”
Madew linked Cheng’s literary efforts to the wider priority of fostering the presence of women in tech and engineering.
“The engineering skills shortage is critical in this country and around the world,” she observed. “Only 14 per cent of working engineers in Australia are women.
“Greater representation of women in engineering will unlock the latent talent of half the population to help ease the skills shortage and ensure the profession of engineering will be representative of the community it serves now and into the future.”
A short excerpt from Smart Girl Books is available on Amazon.com.