Buena Vista University campers recently raced their solar cars at Tech Trek.
STORM LAKE A camp at Buena Vista University is giving girls something they don’t find very often in their own lives: women role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. The camp aims to connect them with role models to shape their future and encourage more women to go into science.
“It’s what the girls are exposed to early on,” that helps determine the choices they make, said Dr. Melinda Coogan, professor of biology at BVU. “The earlier girls are exposed to STEM education, the sooner they realize they can do it.”
“I didn’t have strong role models in STEM before I came here,” said Sammie Jackson, a high school sophomore and junior counselor in the camp. This is her second year attending. “It’s so rewarding to give the girls as good of an experience as I had,” she said.
It’s a problem all-too-familiar in STEM fields in the United States. Go into any engineering class at most schools and the problem is immediately visible: a disproportionate lack of women going into these fields. While the reason is not immediately clear, studies show that girls tend to become less interested in going into science fields and lose interest after about seventh grade. Unless, that is, something comes along to fan their spark into a flame.
The 32 girls in this year’s camp come from all over Iowa, coordinated by the American Association of University Women, which has one Tech Trek camp per state. Girls are nominated by teachers and school administrators based on their displayed interest in science and math subjects, and are encouraged to apply with an essay.
Girls in the camp take classes like computer coding and do hands-on projects like building solar cars and wind turbines. Those hands-on activities are a critical function of keeping that spark going in these young girls, said Coogan.
“It’s a skill that you learn through all these activities,” she said. “It’s not just multiplication tables.”
Personal excitement is just one part of keeping that spark going to bridge these girls to the point where they start making tangible choices that shape their career path.
“Science isn’t for everybody,” she said, “but when you find girls like this, that’s what you want and need.”
Part of the camp’s value is teaching girls how to work through the frustrating points of solving problems in science.
“You have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Coogan said.
Studies show that the lack of comfort, stemming from a lack of role models, is what keeps many women from going into STEM fields.
For women of past decades who had to spearhead their way through STEM fields, Coogan said they had to be stubborn, with a perseverance backed up by passion. But Tech Trek shows young girls and women that they can succeed in male-dominated career fields.
“We realize there are disproportionate numbers of women in science, she said. We have to show them that if they like it and are excited about it, they can do it.”
“They shouldn’t be ashamed of being a woman in science, they should be proud of it,” said Addie Wood, the second of three accomplished junior counselors in this year’s program.
She said this program has taken her out of her comfort zone because she knows she needs to be strong to help the girls around her by example, even with her introverted personality.
This “stereotype threat” is another element that Coogan said keeps girls from pursuing their interests in science.
“As a female, the stereotype threat is that you’re not just representing yourself, but you have an extra level of stress to succeed for all women,” because of the lack of women in these fields, she said.
While societal expectations of women have gotten better, Coogan said we still have a ways to go. Parental and societal pressures were a large factor in her life as a budding ecologist.
Concentrated science, concentrated mentorship, positive outcomes and positive encouragement these are what the program uses to shape young adolescents. So far, the results have been encouraging.
Junior counselor Evie AlSaffar just learned that she was selected to go to the Global Youth Institute after submitting the top paper at her school for the World Food Prize and presenting at the Iowa Youth Institute. Another camper was inspired to start a coding club at her middle school after Tech Trek.
They credit the interactive opportunity provided by Tech Trek in helping to generate an interest they knew they could pursue.
“It’s intimidating, because it’s run by men,” Jackson said.
The three counselors said that a consistent message they hear in life is that men can do anything something not mirrored similarly to women. But through this, they’ve found the confidence they need to realize that they can go for their goals with reckless abandon.
“You need to get it and you can’t let anybody stop you,” Wood said.
The girls all agreed that this changes the way they look at their future.
“When they start meeting women and talking to them, they can see it’s possible to succeed,” Coogan said. “You don’t have to do everything like a man does, but you can pursue careers that are male-dominated.”