Summer Camp Sparks Teenage Girls’ Interest in STEM Careers
Twenty Dallas-area teenage girls recently got hands-on experience with nanotechnology, robots, virtual reality, forensics and space science when they visited UT Dallas for a weeklong summer camp.
Organized by Girls Inc. of Metropolitan Dallas, Richland College and UT Dallas’ Science and Engineering Education Center (SEEC), the SMART Summer College Camp introduced eighth- and ninth-graders to college life and potential careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Campers first spent a week at Richland College to explore the community college experience, and then checked into a UT Dallas residence hall to begin a second week of STEM sessions in various campus locations.
Lori Palmer, CEO of Girls Inc. of Metropolitan Dallas, said the girls came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, one of the largest obstacles to college readiness. Most of the girls in the summer camp had never met a scientist, much less a female scientist, so part of the goal was to broaden the youngsters’ horizons.
“We encourage girls to explore STEM fields and careers because women are underrepresented,” Palmer said. “Yet females employed in STEM careers earn an average of 33 percent more than those employed in other fields.”
At one of the camp’s first activities at UT Dallas, two female scientists greeted campers during a visit to a laboratory associated with the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute. Research associate Dr. Zharkynay Kuanyshbekova and graduate student Patricia Martinez provided a hands-on introduction to nanotechnology and carbon nanotubes.
After helping the girls don the uniform of a scientist — white lab coat, gloves and goggles — the two researchers supervised as the girls handled delicate sheets of carbon nanotube fibers. The curious campers learned that carbon nanotubes are very small, but they are extremely strong and have physical and electrical properties that make them suitable for applications in solar energy and flexible electronics.
Another of the week’s activities took the girls to the motion capture laboratory housed in the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building, where Dr. Ryan McMahan, assistant professor of computer science, led several campers through an immersive virtual reality experience.
Outfitted with a head-mounted, 3-D display, the girls walked through a virtual house onto a virtual balcony and used a hand-held guidance device to “fly” through the computer-generated world.
A camper named Kaia, who is interested in technology and wants to be a computer scientist, said her virtual flying experience “was like being in an airplane with no windows or doors.”
Fellow camper Rickera, who also had a turn in the virtual world, said the weeklong camp at UT Dallas was fun.
“We’re learning new stuff that can prepare us for the future,” said Rickera, who is thinking about pursuing a career as a pediatrician.
UT Dallas faculty and students, as well as Dallas-area scientists and engineers, provided much of the program’s content. For example, staff and faculty with UTeach Dallas, a UT Dallas academic program that allows science and math majors to earn their undergraduate degrees at the same time they earn teaching certification, worked with the campers on a community planning/engineering design project.
Professionals from the community were involved as well. Dr. Shana Santos, a chemist with Dallas County’s Southwest Institute for Forensic Sciences, held a crime scene investigation workshop where the girls used a chemistry technique called ink chromatography to examine trace evidence in a “whodunit.”
Dan Lepinski, a design engineer consultant from the North Texas Renewable Energy Group, took campers through a virtual trip around the world to see how the U.S. and other countries use solar power. And engineers from Dallas-based Texas Instruments led the campers on a field trip to one of the company’s laboratories.
Dr. Bernine Khan, director of SEEC, organized the busy schedule of sessions at UT Dallas with the girls’ long-term interests in mind.
“This camp gives the girls a flavor of STEM careers and introduces them to women who are successful scientists and engineers,” said Khan, who is an environmental engineer. “But integrated into it is how to get there, how to prepare for college, for both two-year and four-year institutions. There are many pathways these young women might take and many resources for them to tap into.
“The girls and their parents left the program with a renewed sense of confidence,” Khan said. “Not only do the girls understand that a bright future awaits them, but they also have a deeper understanding of what steps to take to make that a reality.”
One young camper, Aleisha, is already thinking about her future and making plans. She wants to study law and perhaps be a crime scene investigator. When asked about her impression of UT Dallas, she described the campus as “really big.”
“I want to go to a big university. There’s more chance to meet people from different cultures,” she said.