Sixty rising 8th grade girls descended on New Mexico Tech last Saturday to spend a week exploring STEM at Tech Trek New Mexico, a free week-long residential camp supported by the AAUW. For many of these girls, it was their first extended stay away from home. For all of them, it was their first opportunity to attend a STEM camp. They all seemed to be filled with a mixture of equal parts nervous anticipation and excitement. I would have to say those feelings were shared by the all-female faculty and staff who greeted them.
I was one of the core class teachers for the camp. I have taught engineering classes at summer camps for about five years, but this was my first chance to do so for a group that was entirely female. It was something I have always wanted to do As a high school student, I had attended several STEM camps and had really great experiences but the camps had always included both males and females. It was inevitable in those environments that things surrounding gender stereotypes would always arise. I was curious to see how things would change when the room was completely filled with women and girls.
Each day, the girls spent the morning in a core-class. The girls were sorted into core-classes based on their stated preferences before camp started and then spent the entire week exploring a central theme in that class.
- Stellar Explorations – The students in this class explored stellar systems by creating models and engaging in simulations.
- Cyber Security – The students in this class learned how information is translated into a binary system, how to encode/decode information using a Caesar Cypher, and about safe internet use practices. They also created Women in White Hats – a group of young women who hack for good. They learned how to evaluate cyber security on a web site.
- App Invention – The students in this class used a platform developed by MIT to create a functioning app for an android device.
- Motorized Toys – The students in this class responded to an RFP for a motorized toy. They built an understanding of gear ratios, measured/analyzed the performance of motorized simple and compound gear trains speed and rim force), measured/analyzed rim force on different sized gears, calculated torque, and determined what type of gear ratios will yield different performance results. They then designed/built a motorized toy to meet the criteria outlined in the RFP. After completing a testing cycle to ensure performance criteria were met, they presented their proposals.
- Robotics – Students in this class learned how to build and program a robot that would track a line. Next, they added an arm to the robot that would carry a ping pong ball. They were challenged to program their robot to track a course and conclude by depositing the ping pong ball in a box.
Students spent their afternoons attending workshops. Each workshop was an hour and a half, enabling them to attend two different workshops each afternoon. They had workshops on a wide array of topics. Each of these workshops was taught/facilitated by a female technical professional.
- Photonic Cooking
- Science Writing
- Electricity & Magnetism
- Music with Raspberry Pi
- Rocks & Fossils
- The social life of pennies
Evenings were filled with fun and further exploration. Monday, the girls had a pool party. Those girls who did not want to swim stayed at the dorm and played board games. Tuesday, the girls split into two groups. Half of them went to the Mineral Museum and half of them learned about Ham Radios. Wednesday, the girls attended a dinner with professional women in STEM and had the opportunity to talk to them about their work. Thursday was a repeat of Tuesday with the girls switching to the activity they did not attend earlier in the week. Friday was movie night.
A Week of Wonder
Everywhere I turned, all week long, I was filled with wonder at so many young women actively engaged in STEM.
- Girls were solving problems, analyzing things, creating things. They were thinking at the highest levels on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
- Girls were building knowledge and experience that will help to level the playing field with their male counterparts in the future.
- Girls were demonstrating extraordinary competence in STEM. In my motorized toy class, two of the groups demonstrated the most innovative solutions to the challenge I have seen among students in the last five years with this project. One of those groups created an axle by stringing together wire in order to create a three-wheeled vehicle to reduce weight and improve performance. They are the only group that has ever been able to create a toy that would travel 3 m in 3 s, climb a 1 meter course at a 15 degree slope in less than 2 s, and also climb a 20 degree slope.
- Girls were defying stereotypical thinking about girls in STEM and building a foundation of self-efficacy that will serve them well.
- Girls were actively engaging with female role-models, making it a little easier to see themselves in roles usually held by men.
I think one of the girls summed it up best when she responded to the question of what she liked best. She said, “getting to be with other girls who are just like me.” Being a girl who likes math and science can sometimes be a lonely place. This week, the world got a little bigger for each of these girls and that is a wonderful thing.
As I reflect on the week, I see so many ways that the camp worked to address the variables for women’s success in engineering and computing. In the AAUW report,Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, the research speaks to the need to combat stereotypes and biases, the need to emphasize social relevance, and the need to cultivate a sense of belonging. It also addresses what needs to be done by the various stakeholders. I think the section for educators is particularly relevant.
- Emphasize that engineering and computing skills are learned, rather than innate. Practicing and developing skills are part of the process, as is persistence.
- Adversity is a common experience to everyone. It should not signal to a student that she does not belong.
- Students should be taught about the effects of stereotype threat in order to reduce their effects. (Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, a Stanford professor addresses the impacts of stereotype on academic performance – it impacts high achievers the most-and should be a must read for every educator).
- Give a broad range of students exposure to computer science.
- Highlight the broad applications of computer science and engineering.
- Highlight the ways in which engineering and computer science help people. (Many young women are drawn to the idea of making the world a better place).
- Provide opportunities for girls to interact with women and men with whom they can identify in engineering/computing.
- Create a welcoming environment for girls in math, science, and engineering.
- Provide opportunities for girls to tinker and build confidence and interest in design and computing.
Roughly one fourth of the girls who applied to this camp were admitted. The applicants who were not accepted were well-qualified, but only a certain number could be accommodated. The AAUW and other sponsors were incredibly generous in their support of the camp. I am thankful for all that they did to support STEM education for girls. I just wish that every girl could have this kind of experience.