Camp gives middle school girls hands-on experience in engineering

At UC Berkeley’s Girls in Engineering summer camps, middle schoolers go from robots to cow legs to edible juice caviar, all in one whirlwind week.

Girls assemble and test their Pi-Bot at UC Berkeley’s Girls in Engineering summer camp. (Video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Phil Ebiner)

The camps are part of a pilot program run by the College of Engineering as part of an effort to narrow the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Each summer there are two one-week sessions with 30 participants for each week. Instructors are professors, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students, covering topics ranging from nanotechnology to data science. By design, nearly all instructors are women.

In one workshop, instructor Lavanya Jawaharlal, a UC Berkeley senior in mechanical engineering and co-creator of the Pi-Bot robotics kit, insisted that the girls master the “proper names” and functions of the robotic parts they were about to assemble. They went over terms like chassis, micro-controller and breadboard, a platform used to build electronic circuits.

“I like how they don’t treat us like babies and water things down,” said camper Maddy Jones, 12, a rising seventh-grader at Montera Middle School. “They talk to us like adults.”

In a materials science workshop, girls used a chemical reaction to make their own edible juice caviar. The instructor, Cheryl Chang, an undergraduate student in materials science and engineering, also showed the girls how to make ice cream using liquid nitrogen. (Photo by Doug Birnbaum)

In a materials science workshop, girls used a chemical reaction to make their own edible juice caviar. The instructor, Cheryl Chang, an undergraduate student in materials science and engineering, also showed the girls how to make ice cream using liquid nitrogen. (Photo by Doug Birnbaum)

The program was launched last year with funding from the National Science Foundation, UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering and the Peggy and Jack Baskin Foundation. This year, the program picked up support from Twitter and SanDisk Corp.

There is no cost to attend, but girls must apply. (This year, the organizers received three applications for every spot available.)

Interested girls write short essays about which everyday problem they’d like to solve and how, or what common object they’d like to improve. The process helps ensure that participants come armed with an affinity for scientific thinking, even if they have no prior experience with STEM-based camps. The trick is to show how that problem-solving attitude can turn into careers in science and technology.

“A number of studies have found that around middle school, a lot of girls start to lose interest in STEM fields,” said the camp’s faculty director, Claire Tomlin, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. “We have seen unbridled enthusiasm in 10-year-old girls, but by high school, we start to have problems recruiting enough girls to participate in engineering programs. Our goal is to keep the girls from losing interest, to keep the momentum going.”

There are no easy answers as to why interest among girls wanes at this age, but programs like this one are an attempt to help plug the leaking pipeline to women in STEM fields.

In an Engineering in Medicine workshop, Prof. Grace O’Connell shows campers how to investigate the bones of a cow leg, and talks about how engineers are designing new solutions for broken bones. (Photo by Matt Beardsley)

In an Engineering in Medicine workshop, Prof. Grace O’Connell shows campers how to investigate the bones of a cow leg, and talks about how engineers are designing new solutions for broken bones. (Photo by Matt Beardsley)

“I liked that everything was hands-on,” said camper Sammy Rogers, 11, a rising sixth-grader at Montera Middle School. “We got to make food in a materials science class, and we made robots in a robotics class. One that was really cool, but kind of gross, was an engineering in medicine class where we touched the bones of a cow leg.”

The camp also emphasizes the need for “soft skills,” such as communication and presentation skills. At the beginning of the session, girls are grouped into teams of five. They are then asked to identify a problem and discuss ways to solve it. On the last day of camp, they give their presentation before camp staff and family members.

This summer, the campers spent a day at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, where they designed and created racing games, and met with female interns, engineers and executives to get a sense of what a career in engineering entails.

“We’ve gotten feedback that it is exciting for the girls to be on campus, working in labs,” Tomlin added. “We do show them an academic perspective, but they also need to see the industry side of engineering, which is why we arranged field trips to local tech companies. Kids don’t usually get to see the insides of these companies, so the field trips provide a visual of what they could be and do if they pursued a STEM career.”

Organizers hope the effort will foster greater retention of women in the STEM pipeline. While gender gaps continue in salaries, federal statistics show that women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations, and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men. Yet in recent years, tech companies have released survey results that show dismal representation of women and underrepresented minorities in their employee rosters.

“It’s important to remember that engineers are choosing what problems to solve in our society,” said camp program coordinator Lizzie Hager-Barnard. “We need the different perspectives women bring to the table in order to maintain leadership in innovation.”

This video is from the 2014 launch of the Girls in Engineering camp. The program is part of the College of Engineering’s longstanding commitment to increasing the ranks of women in STEM fields.

Campers and their parents are also asked to participate in a broader longitudinal study about science education led by the Lawrence Hall of Science. The study, which entails the completion of surveys twice during the camp session, seeks to learn more about girls’ attitudes and experiences in science education.

Camp participants are recruited from a limited number of local schools. This year, the girls were recruited from Bentley School and Montera Middle School in Oakland, REALM Charter School in Berkeley and Stanley Middle School in Lafayette.

“We try to pull in girls who may not have had access to STEM-based camps before,” said Hager-Barnard. “Our goal is to have a diverse group of participants. At least half the schools we picked have a high percentage of kids who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.”

She added that the hope is to get additional funding to expand the camp so more girls – and more schools – can participate in the future.

“It was nice being all girls,” said Sammy, who participated in the June session. “That way it’s not awkward. Sometimes it can be awkward with boys.”

“We still would’ve applied, even if the camp included boys, but I do like that it was all girls,” said Sammy’s mother, Maggie Rogers.

As a bonus, the campus setting was familiar turf for Rogers, who got her bachelor’s degree in English from UC Berkeley. “I know that they’re really trying to get more women to go into engineering, and I’m grateful to Cal for offering this,” she said.

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