IST camp sparks middle school girls' interest in STEM careers

While the information technology field is growing rapidly, the female representation in those professions is still relatively small. Many girls, while growing up, do not feel inspired to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

For the past eight years, the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) has been sharing its resources with middle school girls in an effort to spark interest in STEM careers. This year’s Tech Savvy Camp for Girls, a free camp that is designed to build foundation skills in computing as well as supporting other curricula, was held June 13-17 in the IST Building on Penn State's University Park campus. Seventy-five girls in grades six to eight took classes in animation and game design, and created their own avatars and video games. The camp also featured presentations by female professionals working in the technology field.

“They’re pioneers as females going out into the technology field,” said Jan Mahar Sturdevant, professor of practice at IST who has been directing the camp for the past three years.

The camp was funded by the College of IST’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, Penn State’s EOPC, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Philadelphia School District’s GEAR UP Partnership, and Deloitte Consulting.

Since Tech Savvy Camp started, Mahar-Sturdevant said, the number of participants has tripled. In past years, the attendees have been from Centre and Mifflin counties. This year, Tech Savvy Camp for Girls featured a new twist -- 20 of the 75 participants are students in the School District of Philadelphia, who were staying in residence halls on the Penn State campus.

During Tech Savvy Camp, Barbara Farmer, director of Multicultural Affairs for IST said, the students participated in three “mini-camps” in which they divided into teams and created digital stories about women’s leadership roles and 3D virtual world games and avatars. The teams presented their creations at the closing ceremonies on June 17, she said, and were given thumb drives containing the games to take home and share with their friends and family.

Careers in science and technology have been “male-dominated for so long,” Farmer said, adding that only about 10 to 13 percent of IST students are female. While males have traditionally been celebrated in those fields, she said, the “pipeline is leaking” for girls, and it usually starts in middle school. The goal of Tech Savvy Camp, Farmer said, is to empower girls and teach them what courses they should take if they’re interested in pursuing higher education in technology.

“We’re hoping to share who we are and why we would love more females in the STEM fields other than just the attendees,” Farmer said.

Ryan Patton, who will shortly receive his doctorate in art education, taught a game design class at the Tech Savvy Camp for the second year in a row. By the end of camp, he said, all of the students would know how to design their own video game and how all of the components work together.

Tracy Johnson, 12, a student at Park Forest Middle School, said that she attended Tech Savvy Camp for Girls last year and created an avatar. At this year’s camp, she designed a video game in which a knight must battle a dragon to save a princess.

“I like doing things I haven’t done before,” Johnson said.

Rakira Benjamin, 13, a student at Dunbar Promise Academy in Philadelphia, said that she enjoyed the creative process of game design. “I like that we get to make our own stuff,” she said. “…And we can create it any way we want it.”

By interacting with a variety of people during the Tech Savvy Camp, she said, the girls increase their social capital, which “empowers them to work in a male-dominated field.”

This year, said Sturdevant, IST partnered with GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness & Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) , a federally funded program that prepares students throughout the School District of Philadelphia to enter into and succeed in post-secondary education.

Keysha Jackson, a GEAR UP manager who was staying with Philadelphia students during the camp, said that GEAR UP selected participants for the Tech Savvy Camp from among 750 applicants. The girls who were chosen all had A’s and B’s and a strong interest in science and technology.

“They’re on campus, getting a seed-planting experience of the college campus,” Farmer said.

For all 20 girls who attended the camp from Philadelphia, Jackson said, it was their first time away from home without relatives. To prepare them for the experience, GEAR UP held two parent orientations, as well as team-building workshops for the girls.

In addition to teaching girls how to cooperate as a team, Farmer said, the camp experience is also useful in giving the attendees and their parents a taste of what it’s like to go away to college. Many parents of inner-city students are reluctant to permit their children to go to college outside the city, Jackson said, because they often rely on the oldest child for safety and to help with the family.

When trying to get young women interested in technology, Mahar-Sturdevant said, it is important to appeal to the female sensibility. Men who work in the field are often highly competitive and career-focused, she said, but women in those professions are typically are more interested in social justice issues.

“Women are attracted to technology to better the world” she said.

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Last Updated June 30, 2011