Home & School Matters: STEM camps for girls (& the economy)

While the words “summer camp” may call up images of swimming holes and macramé potholders for some, for others “camp” can be a way to improve the U.S. economy.

On June 22nd, 60 eleventh grade young women descended on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a month of rigorous science study; MIT does not use the word “camp” to describe its Women’s Technology Program. Forty young women are working in electrical engineering and computer science and 20 are getting started in mechanical engineering. They’ll be taught by female MIT graduate students — who also design the classes. Undergraduate MIT women live with the high school girls in the dorms and help them with the classes.

MIT is not alone in setting up science programs for girls. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign runs a weeklong math and science program for middle school girls. This year, the Sally Ride Science Camps for 4th to  9th graders (Tagline: “Science. Math.  Technology. Girl Stuff.”)  will be held at Stanford, the California Institute of Technology, MIT, Berkeley, and the University of San Diego.  Even companies are getting in on the action: Microsoft has weeklong camps around the world, including Texas, North Dakota, and Tunisia.

Getting more women into STEM fields is an issue of global importance, according to the United Nations. The STEM gender gap “constitutes an obstacle to nations’ progress,” the UN reported in January.

The UN is not alone in thinking that. The National Academy of Sciences’ 2007 report Beyond Bias and Barriers argues that women’s success in STEM careers is crucial: “Our nation’s future depends on it.” However, the report indicates that while more women are training in the sciences, they are also finding gender-based obstacles to research career success:  “Women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering.”

This is considered an issue of national significance in part because in order to lead in STEM, which is important to the economy overall, research indicates that the U.S. will need to take advantage of all its people — rather than just half the population. Additionally, experts argue that STEM needs people of different backgrounds and perspectives to discuss solutions.

“The more heterogeneous the working group is to solve problems, the more variety of experiences and backgrounds you have, then that creates a more innovative solution,” says Wanda Gass. An engineer and Texas Instruments Fellow, Gass is also the executive director of High-Tech High Heels, which runs a two-week summer physics program for girls, among other activities.

The young women going to STEM camps this summer may not be aware of it, but they are potentially making the U.S. more innovative and possibly improving the U.S. economy as a whole. Perhaps they can code programs or design machines to make macramé potholders at the same time.

Moira Muldoon
Moira Muldoon writes about technology, culture, education and healthcare. Her work has been published in Wired.com, Salon and the Austin American-Statesman, among others.
Moira Muldoon
Tags: Business,Education,Tech Culture