If you want to start a career in technical engineering fields, the first step appears to be marking the “male” box on your application. That’s because engineering has historically been almost exclusively a boys’ HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - A group of five tech-savvy girls built underwater robots that moved by remote control in a pool set up at the Washington County Museum last week. The girls were part of the museums first annual Science, Technology, Engineering & Math Leadership Academy. Left to right are: Marina Odegaard, a home schooler; Alisha Menon of Oregon Connections Academy; Claire Edington of Glencoe High School; Nicole Hill of Sherwood Middle School; and Allison Drennen of Liberty High School.

This summer, however, the Washington County Museum took a small step to help reverse that gender barrier by getting high school girls interested in pursuing technical areas of study.

Jo Rossman, a former elementary school teacher who also serves on the museum’s education committee, said she believes there is a critical need to get more girls mulling careers in engineering. Rather than just think about the issue, however, Rossman decided to make a difference.

Last week, Rossman helped launch the museum-sponsored “SPLASH Underwater Robotics Camp,” part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Leadership Academy for high school girls.

Beth Dehn, education coordinator for the Washington County Museum, cited a 2012 study by the National Science Foundation that found that 53 percent of those working in social sciences and 51 percent of those serving in biological and medical sciences are women, but only 26 percent of those serving in the fields of computer and math sciences are female — and just 13 percent are engineers.

“Traditionally, women are not recruited to do those jobs,” Dehn pointed out. “This is an exciting opportunity for the museum.”

Five girls from area schools signed up for a one-week learning opportunity that would provide them with the framework to design and build robots that can operate underwater using remote control devices.

According to Rossman, the five girls — mostly high schoolers — faced three key engineering challenges. First, they needed to figure out how to get the robot they built to go forward and backward on the surface of the water; do figure-8s and other maneuvers; and finally, find a way to get the device to rise and descend in the water.

“There is a lot of good thinking going on, and they are working a lot on leadership skills,” Rossman said. “It’s not just robotics, but a vehicle for thinking. The best mentor inspires others to think, and not think for them.”

The girls seemed to enjoy working together.

“It’s very creative. I’m solving problems with my team,” said Claire Edington, a student at Glencoe High School. “Working with programming opened my mind to designing and reprogramming, and finding mistakes and fixing mistakes. It’s a very good experience.”

“This camp is engaging, and I’m so glad I came,” added Alisha Menon, a student at Oregon Connections Academy. “Working with water robots is a huge difference from land robots. We’ve got more problems to deal with.”

One girl conceded that she didn’t want to get involved in the robotics program, but her parents, seeing the potential value, insisted she do so. Now she is loving it.

“My parents chose for me,” said Nicole Hill, who is going into eighth-grade at Sherwood Middle School. “I didn’t think I’d like it, and I was going outside my range (of experience). But on the first day, it was so much fun. They gave us instruments to build robots, and we’re programming and engineering the design process to rebuild and fix problems — that’s the hardest part.”

Late last week, for example, the team ran into a critical issue: Some of the plastic containers housing the robotic motors were letting in water, and the girls were scrambling to find a fix.

“We can’t get water on the battery case,” explained Edington. “It’s a serious problem.”

This is the first year of the program, but leaders of the Washington County Museum want to make it an annual tradition.

“We want to build on this concept and make it bigger,” said Krissy Rowan, director of communications for the museum. “We had five girls this year, and our goal is to at least double that for next year.”

In another unique aspect of the camp, the girls were shown that working in robotics is not just for fun, but can be applied to a possible career.

On Friday, for example, Sgt. Tristan Sundsted of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office came to the museum with a small robotic device on treads that is used in law enforcement applications. The device has a multi-directional video camera and is guided by remote control.

“Why put our people into a foreign house when we’re not sure what’s in there?” said Sundsted. “So we throw a robot in before we send people in. The robot can instantly see if someone has a gun, and can freeze a photo from its video feed to identify someone.”

Sundsted also pointed out that often the “bad guys” surrender once they find out they are up against robotic technology, because they figure there is no way to escape.

“One of my sayings is, ‘when a robot shows up, all of a sudden stuff just got real,’” he said.

Sundsted added that he would like to see more women getting involved in engineering.

“There is a need for females in technical fields,” said Sondberg. “In 1985, 35 percent of technical graduates were women. Now, it’s down to 18 percent.”

Dehn noted that while the robotics program for high school girls has ended for the year, there is a middle school program that runs Aug. 12-16.

“The program is open to all middle-school kids in Washington County, school districts and home schoolers alike,” Dehn said. “We’re hoping to get the August camp filled and keep it going.”