Can Summer Camps Help Close Tech’s Gender Gap?
By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
Summer camp has evolved dramatically since America’s first organized camp, the Gunnery Camp, was founded in 1861 in Connecticut to teach boys to hunt, fish and shoot. It set the model for the kind of summers many remember from childhood: An oasis in the wilderness, slathered in sunscreen and bug spray shooting bows and arrows, braiding friendship bracelets and competing in canoe races. But times have changed.
STEM-focused camps for girls have multiplied in recent years in an effort to encourage more women to choose careers in science, technology, engineering and math. More than a third of the programs accredited by the American Camp Association offered STEM programming in 2017, up from 23 percent in 2014. STEM activities are also showing up in more day camps, with a focus on getting girls involved.
“A hundred percent of girls are underserved in STEM,” says Tamara Hudgins, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based Girlstart, one of today’s array of tech-focused summer experiences. “We expose them to a range of skill-building programs and help them set goals to accelerate their STEM skills.”
Just as traditional summer camps create lasting memories, STEM camps — whether they’re day camps or sleepaway camps — can spark a lifelong interest in science and technology, all while giving girls from different backgrounds the chance to make friends and share new experiences.
“Our young people need the values of community and ethics, and social and emotional learning to harness and shape technology to create better societies. Summer camp is an essential part of that.”
—Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO, American Camp Association
Although more women are pursuing careers in STEM than in years past, they remain vastly underrepresented in engineering and science. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, yet according to the National Science Foundation, they make up only about 28 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
Part of what holds women back from the high-tech workforce is a culture that’s often marked by discrimination and a lack of inclusion. Having mentors and a supportive community can help, and summer camp friendships are a way to start.
Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, says STEM camps are a great way to spark curiosity and help girls learn something new, while cultivating a sense of community that is key to helping girls succeed in an increasingly tech-dominated world. Community has been an important part of summer camp from its early days, he says, and it’s even more important now amid the rapid, world-changing technological advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing and robotics.
“Our young people need the values of community and ethics, and social and emotional learning to harness and shape technology to create better societies,” Rosenberg says. “Those skills aren’t innate. Kids need to practice them. Summer camp is an essential part of that, and if we do it right, they’ll be successful inventors, designers, thinkers and creators.”
Like many STEM-focused girls camps, Austin’s Girlstart, which now has 27 summer camps serving close to 1,000 fourth- to eighth-graders across nine states, focuses on activities that are cooperative, project-oriented and inquiry-based. This summer, fourth- and fifth-graders in Girlstart’s “Where the Wild Things Live” camp will fly drones to relocate animals who have strayed from their habitat. Sixth- to eighth-graders in “Scrub In” camp will design a working prosthetic device and diagnose growing bacteria.
“We want girls to be connected with big, global challenges,” Hudgins says. “And they’re motivated by that. They want to help people.”
Last year, Girlstart worked with NASA on its Girlstart Galaxy camp. In a “Space Salad” activity, campers grew, harvested and prepared vegetables in microgravity — about as close to weightlessness as it gets. It’s a real-world challenge for astronauts who one day hope to make the more than 24-month journey to Mars.
Nurturing a STEM network
Corporations, colleges and universities are creating their own STEM-camp experiences exclusively for girls, sharing their expertise with campers while getting a head start on preparing tomorrow’s workforce. In Massachusetts, Meg Thacher heads up Smith College’s Summer Science & Engineering Program for high school girls, which has recently expanded. This summer’s four-week course features topics unlikely to be covered in depth in high school: the chemistry of herbal medicine, designing intelligent robots and the Python programming language.
Post-program surveys consistently show girls report improved feelings of competence and persistence around STEM and a desire to pursue careers in science, Thacher says.
“Our program connects girls with a cadre of other girls interested in science,” she says. “They stay in contact with each other even after the program’s over.”
In New York, at the Intrepid Museum’s six-week summer STEM intensive program, rising freshman and sophomore girls from across the five boroughs engage in activities around aerospace, astronomy, engineering, technology, and Earth and marine science. Much of the learning is built around the museum’s collection of several dozen aircraft, including helicopters, Navy jets and space shuttles. Girls also visit places like a local toxicology and pharmacology lab and the South Street Seaport Museum, where they head out on a schooner for a water-quality testing activity.
Lynda Kennedy, vice president of education and evaluation at the Intrepid Museum, agrees that it’s the relationships forged over the summer that empower girls. “They have each other to lean on and mentors to reach out to,” she says.
Every Friday at the Intrepid Museum is “Career Friday,” when girls hear from women working in STEM jobs. Past speakers have included a chemist who develops fabrics for the fashion brand Coach, and Kiran Gandhi, who has a mathematics degree and is also the drummer for the artist M.I.A. “It gives them a world view of what the realities are and how to get from point A to point B,” Kennedy says.
As with other STEM camps for girls, the museum stays in touch with campers, keeping them up to date on opportunities so they stay interested, engaged and continue their learning path to a fruitful STEM career.
According to a recent KnowledgeWorks Foundation report on redefining job readiness, as technology advances, success at work will depend more on social relationships that support learning, collaboration and innovation. Workers who thrive amid uncertainty, creatively solve problems and effectively partner with both machines and people will be among the most successful.
“We want to build a network for these girls,” Kennedy says. “Girl-focused STEM programs provide a community of support, and going forward that’s something that will really help sustain them.”