Karen Diaz, 11, is a tinkerer.
"My mom told me I should be an engineer," she explained. "She said: 'You're good at math and at inventing things from your imagination.' "
Diaz, of Riverview, will be a sixth-grader at Ferrell Girls Preparatory Academy this fall. She is one of 18 who attended the all-girls robotics camp at Hillsborough Community College last week.
In teams of two, the girls' final project was to program their Lego Mindstorm EV3 robots to quickly traverse an obstacle course of about 50 water bottles. The robots need to make five turns, pick up a small Lego piece and then get back into the finish line. Every move is calculated in advance and the teams lose points for each water bottle knocked over.
The girls built the robots from a kit into a vehicle resembling a dump truck, with four wheels and a part to carry the Lego piece at the finish line. The girls upload commands from a laptop program to a small, $350 processing unit on the robot's back.
"Our robot likes to drift," Diaz explained before a test run through the course.
This is the all-girls camp's ninth year. It is part of a larger robotics camp hosted by the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center. Most of the other participants are boys.
"Most of the girls are here because they like science or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)," said instructor Elizabeth Simpson.
The center uses the camp as a way to encourage young girls to consider careers in robotics, engineering and manufacturing. At the start of the camp, about five of the girls were interested in a robotics-related field, said Simpson.
Hillsborough County has invested $1 million toward encouraging young people to pursue careers in the local manufacturing sector. Manufacturing is a minor part of the local economy with nearly 62,000 jobs in the Tampa Bay area, according to a recent study by the Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. The approximate 3,700 companies in the market have struggled to find qualified workers.
"Not only is there a severe shortage for skilled labor but for women there's a huge lag as well," said Ginger Clark, the vice president of workforce development for Hillsborough Community College.
Women are "severely underrepresented" in manufacturing jobs, she said. Women hold about 25 percent of the manufacturing jobs compared with 47 percent of the total workforce.
The concept of dirty men doing repetitive work for eight hours straight in a noisy plant is still the image for many young women when they think of a manufacturing job, she said.
"For females those factors aren't attractive. Our primary goal is to change public perception ... It's more of a high-tech career now," she said.
"The camp is critical because it reaches young females to get them to connect the dots between their interests, skills and passions to work that is really interesting and challenging."
Contact Alli Knothe at email@example.com. Follow @KnotheA.