The story of a girl who dared to be different – Marita Cheng


To celebrate National Science Week, 12 August – 20 August, EducationDaily is publishing a series of STEM-focused articles featuring inspiring and innovative ideas.

Marita Cheng AM is a born go-getter. She’s a Churchill Fellowship recipient, Anita B.Org Change Agent award winner and 2012 Young Australian of the Year.

She featured on Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2016, and earned a spot on its Top 50 Women in Tech list in 2018. In 2019, the engineering visionary was appointed a member of the Order of Australia, for significant service to science and technology, particularly to robotics.

After leaving Cairns in far north Queensland to study Mechatronics, Engineering and Computer Science at University of Melbourne, she discovered she was the only girl in her class – and that didn’t sit right with her.

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Ms Cheng’s response? In 2008, at the age of 19 she founded Robogals, the company ‘inspiring tomorrow’s engineers today’.

Women mentoring girls in STEM

The precursor to Robogals came in 2007 when she founded Nudge, an ahead-of-its-time SMS medication reminder service. Just one year later, she created a volunteer-run network of university students taking free engineering and technology workshops to girls at primary and secondary schools around the country.

This would become Robogals, which now has chapters at universities in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and London.

With a mission to ‘inspire, engage and empower young women into engineering and related fields’, the goal is to spark an interest in STEM by instilling confidence in girls from a young age. Robogals has worked with 120,000 girls and counting and, with a CEO in place to take the company to the next level, Marita Cheng is only just getting started.

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Read more: Primary + STEM: Helping girls see it and be it

Entrepreneurial endeavours

Aipoly app

With Robogals seamlessly rolling out to different universities, almost exclusively through word-of-mouth, Ms Cheng set her sights on the next big idea. First she dabbled in AI, founding Aipoly; a company that produced a ‘truly visionary’ object and colour recogniser app to help people who are blind, visually impaired or colour blind.

The AI-powered tech can recognise up to three objects per second through users’ cameras, seeing and speaking in real time to give people a clearer picture of their surroundings. Aipoly uses deep learning, a machine-learning method that teaches computers to learn in the same way as our human brains (or convoluted neural networks, as Ms Cheng prefers to call them).

A how to for Marita Cheng’s robotics company Aubot


Ms Cheng’s robotics start-up, Aubot, is pioneering telepresence: ‘the ability to project into settings and situations all over the world to interact with others’ from a device or desktop.

These robots are breaking new ground in corporate, healthcare, training and more with Optus, Telstra, ACMI and Questacon all on board.

Smart Girls add books to their portfolios

Inspired by advancements with open-source AI, Ms Cheng recently took her growing interest in artificial intelligence to new realms in a world-first publishing project.

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“I wanted to generate multiple images with a simple prompt, and to use only those AI images to illustrate my new book,” she told EducationDaily.

Smart Girls: Marita Cheng is a memoir and children’s picture book rolled into one, and the first book of its kind to be published with exclusively AI-generated artwork.

“In terms of consistency of look and feel, the process is a lot more complex than I originally realised,” she says. “The breakthrough came when I worked out I could use one prompt to generate seven versions of an image from different angles and in the end over 10,400 images were generated to find the right ones for the 42-page book.”

Even the title is ChatGPT-generated – after several rounds of revised prompts – and Ms Cheng describes “lots of editing extra fingers and toes” before sending the book out to her inner-circle for first-round feedback. What came back were requests for more depth, and more of a deep-dive into her life story. She credits ‘shut up & write Zoom sessions with holding her accountable and helping her to get the words out of her head and onto the page, with minimal procrastination.

Fast-forward to today and, after a fitting nine-month gestation, Ms Cheng’s on the promotional circuit, with her newly published book bearing her favourite AI generated image on the front cover.

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A book cover for Smart Girls: Marita Chenga book cover for Smart girls: marita cheng

The next chapter

Her current plan? To choose another heroine for the next book in the Smart Girls series. Definitely a change-maker, although probably less well-known than the characters we’re used to reading about in children’s picture books.

When asked what advice she would give to young girls inspired by her story to create the products they wish existed, Ms Cheng says “there are so many opportunities, imagination is your only limit. I came from living in Cairns housing commission but with science and engineering, if you have a vision, you can create anything.”

”If you have passion,” she told EducationDaily, “people will see it, and that will help you get the tools, training and opportunities you need to develop your dreams into reality.”

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.