What do lip balm, solar-propelled cars and robots have in common? For one group of lucky middle school girls from Chicago, the answer was InSTEM, a weeklong summer camp held at the College of Education in August. Combining science, technology, engineering and math (the acronym “STEM”), InSTEM offered sixth and seventh graders from under-resourced communities an opportunity to explore these disciplines in a fun, positive and supportive environment.
“We want to help young girls overcome the stigma that STEM subjects are hard and that success in those areas is unattainable,” explains Nell Cobb (CSH MA ’87), the camp’s co-director, who is associate chair of the Department of Teacher Education and an associate professor of mathematics education in the College of Education. “Our free camp is one step toward closing the STEM gender gap.” Recent statistics illuminate this problem. Between 2000 and 2012, there was a 64 percent decline in the number of first-year undergraduate women interested in majoring in computer science. Women accounted for 57 percent of undergraduate degree recipients in 2012, but only 12 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients at major research universities were women.
Judging by the enthusiasm of the InSTEM campers, these trends may be reversible. “Programming my robot was very exciting,” shares seventh-grader Ashley K. “We used all sorts of things in math to figure out how to make our robots do 360- and 180-degree turns.” Her fellow camper Isabella C. enjoyed the challenge of creating an obstacle course for the robot to conquer. “We had to measure the angles on our course, make the robot turn correctly and program the robot to do what we want,” she recalls. “It was tricky but lots of fun!”
Campers experienced a crash course in chemistry while mixing different components to formulate lip balm and practiced mapping skills during a geocaching activity (essentially an outdoor treasure hunting game) using GPS-enabled devices. A unit on solar-powered cars offered additional learning opportunities. “We used many materials from real jobs,” sixth-grader Skylar W. recounts. Just like a real job, campers relied on teamwork and problem-solving skills to overcome difficulties. “At first, my solar power car didn’t go in a straight line, so my partner and I had to change [the placement of] our paper clip so it could balance,” says Tia T. “We used battery packs to make the car move inside because the solar panels only work outside.”
High school and college students served as mathematics literacy workers (aka mentors) throughout the program, facilitating the experiences and acting as role models. They tested each activity during pre-camp training and also attended a special career workshop on networking and resume building. “It’s a great opportunity, not only for the campers, but for the high school and college students as well,” notes Eunmi Lee, the camp’s co-director and an assistant professor in secondary science education in the Department of Teacher Education.
InSTEM wrapped up with a block party celebration, where the campers demonstrated their skills for family and friends. Sixth graders held a race for their solar cars, while the seventh graders showed off their robots. Both groups participated in an ice cream making extravaganza. “It’s always so much fun coming to STEM camp,” McKenzie F. enthuses. “I can’t wait to come back next year as a mentor!”