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STEAM Girls campers spent a week immersed in fun activities related to engineering, physics, coding, and robotics. Photo: Brett Simison

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Student-Run Camp Keeps Girls Interested in Science, Technology

September 8, 2017



MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – For the second summer in a row, a team of Middlebury students has run a summer camp for girls aimed at sparking their interest in technology. STEAM (short for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) Girls is the brainchild of Joy Wood ’17, a computer science major on a mission to improve the gender balance in her chosen field.

As Wood progressed through college, she noticed that very few women seemed to share her passion for computer science—not in her Middlebury classes and not at the tech camp where she taught programming. She was surprised that only 17 percent of campers were female, even in the youngest classes.

STEAM Girls campers work on programming a Lego robot during their August session. Photo: Brett Simison

“Teaching a classroom full of boys was awesome because I knew that I was representing a strong female in the classroom,” she mused, “but I just longed to see more girls there and to reach out to younger girls and share my love of computer science with them.”

Wood says there is no shortage of interest in computer science among young girls. But in middle school, “girls start to lose interest and lose confidence in their own abilities to succeed in technology.”

Wood recruited her friend and fellow student Kristin Richards ’17 to develop a short, fun summer program that would jump-start girls’ interest in technology. They landed a seed grant from the College’s MiddChallenge program, which funds several entrepreneurial student projects each year, and forged ahead with their two-week camp.

This summer—the second year of their project—Wood and Richards felt the camp could be improved by splitting it along age groups, so they created one weeklong camp for 7- to 10-year-olds and another for ages 11 to 14.

Campers enjoy a sweet physics experiment during STEAM Girls. Photo: Chris Spencer

A playful, collaborative atmosphere filled the gym where the girls and counselors met daily. They circulated among three stations that offered activities in engineering and physics—featuring plenty of marshmallows—computer coding, and Lego robots. The College’s Computer Science Department donated much of the equipment.

“What was most important to me was just showing these girls that this is fun and you can be good at it—and be confident that you’re good at it,” said Gigi Miller ’18, who joined the team this year as a counselor. “I think having any exposure to this now means the next time they see it, they’ll think ‘Oh, I already know this; I did something like this before.’”

At the end of each weeklong camp, the girls invited their parents for an open house and mini graduation ceremony. Wood says it was an “incredible experience as an instructor to see how excited the girls are to tell their parents about what they’ve learned over the course of a week.” She sees a high demand for this kind of education, with parents often asking her how their daughters can continue learning about technology.

Professor Daniel Scharstein, chair of the Computer Science Department, didn’t need much persuading to back the students’ program.

“We were very happy to support the STEAM Girls project,” said Scharstein. “There is a huge need for outreach projects that increase the participation of underrepresented groups in computer science, and we applaud Joy on her initiative.”

Although Wood is now teaching at a STEM charter school in Denver, she is eager to see STEAM Girls continue and has handed the program off to a new group of undergraduates. She hopes the program will continue to grow and reach a much larger audience.

“There are so many girls out there with amazing ideas who deserve to know that computer science is something they can do and something they can contribute to!”

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