by Kristen Coyne | Photography by Dave Barfield
Twelve years ago, 16 middle and high school girls attended a brand new science camp. For two weeks, they left behind the books and instead learned with their hands. They dug for fossils at the Tallahassee Museum, examined squishy marine animals on the Gulf of Mexico, and launched homemade rockets at a local park.
Operated by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and WFSU, the SciGirls Camp was itself a bold experiment about how to encourage girls in the STEM fields.
A dozen years and 325 girls later, it’s clear that the experiment has been a success.
No surprise to Kim Kelling, co-founder and co-director of the camp.
“We knew right out of the gate that we had something special with SciGirls,” said Kelling, director of content and community partnerships at WFSU.
The proof is in the data. Half of the campers went on to major in a STEM field in college. Most of the others assimilated STEM in their fields (such as early childhood education) in some way.
Last summer, SciGirls even launched its first spin-off: a camp for girls interested in coding.
What has made the program such a success? Three major factors, organizers and former SciGirls say.
First, campers learn by doing. Rather than read and study, they explore and discover.
“This is how science should be; they get dirty with it, they get to experience it, they experiment,” said Kelling. “Suddenly, science is lifted off the page and becomes something very real to them. That’s where the hook goes in.”
The hook dug deep for Stephanie Reynolds. Like most SciGirls, she already liked science before attending the camp in 2007. But the experience gave her the confidence to stick with it during a period when other girls abandon STEM.
“It confirmed my interest and motivated me to continue in science as a career,” said Reynolds, who went on to attend the California Institute of Technology after high school.
Second, absent the scrutiny of boys, campers can be their authentic, science-loving selves.
“At the time, I think I was more comfortable around girls than I was around guys,” Reynolds said. “I think the all-girls environment let me be more relaxed and enjoy the camp more.”
The all-girl cadre of campers is supported by an all-female team of teachers and guest scientists. “They meet so many women in science,” said Kelling, “that suddenly they can start perceiving themselves as scientists.”
Finally, with this audience, encouragement carries more clout coming from women than men. As former SciGirl Lucy Toman explained, “You’re telling me I can do this, but you’re not a woman,” she said. “So, how can you tell me?”
Even after the last day of camp, organizers keep the girls connected to science — and each other. Some return for a second year (the camp offers two levels) or volunteer at the camps after they age out. When a science-related opportunity pops up, SciGirls organizers make sure the girls find out about it.
“Bringing the participants together maintains these connections and networks,” said camp co-director Roxanne Hughes, who oversees educational and diversity programming for the National MagLab and authored the study on the camp’s effectiveness. “It also allows younger girls to see the successes of the alumnae.”
Once a SciGirl, always a SciGirl — that is, until they graduate into SciWomen, pursuing college degrees and careers in STEM fields.
The camp motivated two-time SciGirl Toman to devote her career to science. She is slated to graduate this year from the University of Florida with a degree in industrial and systems engineering.
“I think that because I went to SciGirls,” said Toman, “and worked with other girls to discover some of the coolest experiments, I have a better understanding of how women not only are, but need to be, involved in the STEM careers.”
Since graduating from Caltech, Reynolds, now 24 has been working toward a PhD in chemical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. For her research, she injects DNA into tiny roundworms to change their genes, part of an effort to study the activity of neurons. Reynolds is developing ways to improve this painstaking technique. The work is rewarding, but tough, she said. Encouragement she has received over the years, from SciGirls to her PhD advisor, helps keep her motivated.
Watching former SciGirls mature into scientists, engineers and mathematicians is a huge payback for Hughes.
“I get to see these young women grow and become amazing members of our local community and their college community,” she said. “This program is so much more than a camp: It is a vital part of the lab and Tallahassee.”
A decade after their SciGirls experiences, both Reynolds and Toman have already begun to give back. Toman managed a team of 70 students who did a large-scale makeover of a Gainesville school, while Reynolds regularly talks to Atlanta area students about STEM careers.
What’s her advice for girls interested in STEM? Don’t give up. “There will be supporters along the way, and there may be people who don’t think you can do it,” she said. “But if you set your mind to it, you can go into whatever field you want to.”
For more information about SciGirls contact Carlos Villa at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at email@example.com, visit www.wfsu.org/scigirls/ or call WFSU at 850-645-6056