When 12-year-old Persis Phelps returns to the dorm after a day of learning, she and the other STEM campers stay up late, play games and talk about the knowledge they gained. It’s one of her favorite parts of camp.
“It’s just so comforting,” the Memorial Junior High student said.
Unlike her classes at school, there are no boys around, but that’s by design.
Phelps is one of 48 girls participating in Tech Trek, a weeklong overnight camp wrapping up Saturday at the University of Tulsa. Tech Trek offers incoming eighth-grade girls the opportunity to learn about science, technology, engineering and math from women in those fields.
“A lot of times in school, it’s not cool for girls to be ‘the smart girl,’ but here they’re with all the smart girls,” camp director Xan Black said.
“That’s extremely important for young women to realize, that there’s a lot of girls who are interested in these things, and it’s not a bad thing.”
Tech Trek, which started in 1998, was designed to make STEM exciting and accessible to girls in middle school — the age when research shows girls’ participation in these fields drops. It’s also intended to encourage girls to consider four-year degree programs.
For many of the girls, it’s the first time that they’re on a college campus, which is one of the most important components of the camp, said Black, program director of the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance. While there, the girls spend time with strong female mentors and are exposed to a taste of college life.
Erin Iski, a chemistry professor at TU, returned this summer to teach the camp’s nanoscience course because she loves the camp’s mission. Iski, who is the only female tenure-track professor in her department, said it is critical to encourage girls at this age who love science.
“Our country desperately needs additional people in the STEM workforce,” Black said. “If we could get girls to take their place at the table, that would go a long way toward resolving that shortfall.”
In 2009, women made up less than 25 percent of the workforce in STEM fields, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
This week, Iski said, she has seen her campers not only further their love for science, but also grow individually.
“Putting them in an environment where they feel it’s OK to be smart, you can see how that affects their self-esteem,” she said.
The camp, sponsored by the American Association of University Women and hosted at various colleges across the country, offers four core classes that highlight different STEM areas, including cybersecurity, mobile application creation, nanoscience, mathematics and cryptography.
She’quiel Ragsdale, 13, of Muskogee, came to camp because she wanted to learn more about technology. She knew when she was 10 years old that she wanted to be a technology engineer after she figured out how to fix her computer at home, she said.
Ragsdale is learning how to code mobile apps in the camp’s app inventor course.
On Thursday, Ragsdale and her classmates coded the “Where’s My Car” app, which is designed to remember the locations of parked cars and provide directions to them later. It was the ninth app they had coded during their four days at camp.
Twelve-year-old Hadaly Prosser of Tulsa, who had never coded apps before the class, said she wants to design apps in the future.
AAUW began hosting the camp at TU last summer. Oklahoma also hosts a second Tech Trek camp on the Southwestern Oklahoma State University campus in Weatherford.
Other camps are located in California, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Alabama, Florida and New Jersey.