Tech Trek: A Different Kind of Summer Camp

AAUW Tech Trek campers in Florida take a field trip to the local aquarium in 2014.

May 29, 2015

On the table there’s a spread of toothpicks, licorice strands, and a rainbow assortment of marshmallows. To some, the items might be the makings of a lunchbox snack, but to a group of eager middle-school girls, the treats are tools for creating lines of DNA that mimic genetic coding.

Pretending that marshmallows are nucleotides is just one example of the fun, hands-on problem solving that exposes girls to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at AAUW Tech Trek camps. Across the country, these types of activities are making STEM exciting and accessible to girls in middle school — the age when research shows girls’ participation in these fields drops.

“We knew from studies that girls’ interests can be sustained if they are exposed early to the careers available to women in these fields today,” says former AAUW of California Program Director Marie Wolbach. “We wondered how we could light that spark for the young girls to pursue futures in STEM.”

In a course on the basic principles of robotics during 2014 AAUW Tech Trek in Washington, girls practiced design modifications and commanded a small electronic robot.

In a course on the basic principles of robotics during 2014 AAUW Tech Trek in Washington, girls practiced design modifications and commanded a small electronic robot.

With the help of an AAUW Community Action Grant, Wolbach and AAUW of California founded the first Teck Trek camp on Stanford University’s campus in 1998. Since that first site, Tech Trek has expanded to nine other campuses across the state in addition to the AAUW National Tech Trek Pilot Program, which started in 2012 to give girls across the country access to this rich learning opportunity.

This year, the STEM summer camp program will serve more than 1,600 girls at 21 sites around the nation. At each camp, eighth graders experience college life for a week as they learn to live with someone other than a relative, share community bathrooms, eat dorm food, and explore the hosting campus’ area.

Curriculums vary by campus, but hands-on activities and field trips in math, science, and other related fields are constant. The camps encourage students to take courses in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in high school and inspire them to consider future careers in these fields.

Inspiring Girls Around the Country

Tech Trek and its rapid expansion are sustained by investment and collaboration from foundations and corporations seeking a more diverse STEM talent pool.

Girls test the physics of rocketry by launching model rockets at Tech Trek camps in Alabama and Washington.

Girls test the physics of rocketry by launching model rockets at Tech Trek camps in Alabama and Washington.

With Verizon’s support, girls will learn how to perform basic coding in an MIT-developed mobile app inventor course. Thanks to Symantec Corporation, select camps will launch a new cybersecurity course. A grant from Lockheed Martin will also support the national Tech Trek program and provide mentorship to girls participating in camps serving Lockheed Martin communities in Huntsville, Alabama; Palo Alto, California; and Galloway, New Jersey.

Changing Statistics

Women still make up a minority of workers in most STEM fields — for instance, they account for just 26 percent of the computing workforce and only 12 percent of engineers — but programs like Tech Trek can help raise those numbers.

By exposing girls to the fun and innovative ways they can use math and science, Tech Trek empowers girls to do whatever inspires them, be that extract strands of DNA, go into space, or launch the next great start-up.

Bethany Imondi By:   |   May 29, 2015