Girl power! — Tech Trek program inspiring young women to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math | TheUnion.com

Girl power! — Tech Trek program inspiring young women to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math

Lorraine Jewett
Special to The Union

It's an experience money can't buy.

Girls attending a week-long summer camp at UC Davis must be nominated by their teachers, survive a rigorous application process, and thereby earn the $900 tuition paid by the local branch of the American Association of University Women.

"Parents can't buy this for their daughters," said Martha Rees, camp co-director and AAUW member. "There are a lot of camps out there that parents can pay for. This is something girls have to earn."

The camp is called Tech Trek. It encourages middle-school girls to excel in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Those STEM fields are where the jobs are, but women aren't.

Tech training

Nearly 100 girls from all over Northern California will live together on the UC Davis campus next month. They'll participate in hands-on learning, including experiments, workshops, field trips, and other activities. Tech Trek also introduces girls to women role models working in STEM careers.

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Isabella Conte, an eighth-grader at Chicago Park School, attended Tech Trek last summer.

"It inspired me!" said Conte, 13, who plans to become a neurologist. "You get to meet all these amazing women. Even though you're a girl, you see it's okay to be smart and do what you want to do when you're older. It helps your confidence."

Leah Ellis, a Nevada Union High School senior next year, said her Tech Trek experience in 2014 changed her life's trajectory.

"It was super eye-opening to learn about science fields that I didn't know existed," said Ellis, 17. "Today I know I have the option to go into those fields. Science is my favorite subject, but it wasn't until I went to Tech Trek. It was a life-changing experience."

Ellis appreciated her Tech Trek time so much that she's returning next month as a camp counselor.

"The idea is to provide a camp where like-minded girls with potential and interest in science, math, and other areas can be exposed to women working in those fields," said Rees. "The girls can see themselves both taking STEM-related academics as well as considering careers in those fields."

The camp encourages girls to envision themselves as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, computer programmers, chemists, and specialists in related careers. Tech Trek was founded in 1998 with one camp at Stanford University. There are now 10 camps each summer at eight California universities, as well as another 10 camps in eight other states. The local American Association of University Women branch has sent more than 100 girls to Tech Trek over the past 10 years.

Campers are all entering eighth grade in the fall. AAUW research showed that's when girls' interest and participation in STEM fields wane. The girls are nominated by their math, science, and technology teachers at public middle schools across Nevada County. Those nominated assemble an application that includes an essay. The girls are then interviewed by a panel of AAUW members, and seven to eight girls are selected.

"That's the tough part," said Rees, adding that 30 students were interviewed this year. "We wish we could send them all."

Campers are introduced to a variety of STEM fields, and they also choose a core class in which they spend 15 hours learning about that specific field. Core classes include Anatomy and Physiology, Computer Coding and Programming, High-energy Engineering, Genetics, and 3-D Mathematics. Students complete projects such as building a desalination device, designing a project to be 3D printed, creating models of DNA, and drawing architectural blueprints.

Tech Trekkers are encouraged to take calculus, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering classes when they reach high school. Studies show girls who take calculus in high school are three times more likely to major in a scientific or engineering field in college than girls who do not take high school calculus.

Bringing Balance to the workforce

Women make up only 12 percent of the workforce in engineering and 26 percent in computing. Experts blame stereotypes, biases, and unwelcoming working environments.

AAUW surveys reveal 94 percent of Tech Trekkers said the camp increased their interest in science, and 91 percent said it boosted their confidence that they could be successful in science classes.

"What fascinates me about STEM is it's always changing and evolving," said Magnolia Intermediate student and 2017 Tech Trekker Jocelyn McKinley. "The camp most definitely improved my self-confidence. I am a girl and I know I can do this. I'm going to be a bio-medical engineer."

Kaitlyn Antoni, a 13-year-old Lyman Gilmore student, said she looks forward to the encouragement she expects to receive at camp next month.

"It feels like teachers sometimes gear themselves toward boys because they have more men succeeding in STEM fields," Antoni said. "Some teachers don't pay as much attention to the girls, except of course my amazing teachers."

Antoni has her eye on a STEM-related career, but she's also eager to learn about others.

"I know the camp is geared toward helping women being pushed forward into the STEM fields, and it shows us women who have already succeeded," said Antoni. "I'm into math, science, and engineering. I'm hoping to become a marine biologist in California and also Australia because of its amazing coral reefs."

Rees said many local companies and individuals have contributed to the AAUW Tech Trek tuition fund, including the M. Lowell Edwards Foundation, AJA Video Systems, Telestream, Litton Engineering Laboratories, Nevada Irrigation District, Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital/Dignity Health, B&C Ace Home and Garden Center, Ed and Bernadette Sylvester, Nancy and Ron Knaus, Darlene and John Abt, Bernie and Ray Kringel, Susie and John Monary-Wilson, and Teri McConnell.

Saskia Dummett, whose daughter Teanna attended Tech Trek last year, said her daughter returned from camp with a new outlook.

"It was an amazing experience for her," said Saskia. "It has shaped who she is and what she wants to be. She's now exploring a career in math, science, or engineering. It was exciting for her to live like a college student for a week and talk to experts in the field. She came back really jazzed."

"I learned a lot," said Teanna, 14. "We explored a lot of careers, including some I'd never even heard about. I'm looking to work in computer science or something that is definitely STEM-based because I know math and science can change the world."

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.

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