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SCIENCE GIRLS: Oklahoma STEM camps target middle-school girls to boost interest in hard sciences

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Emily Kalahan, a junior counselor at Tech Trek, studies a piece of pyrite at Devon Energy.
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OKLAHOMA CITY- Carlie Golden of Calumet is entering 8th grade, but she already knows what she wants to do professionally.

Her job of choice will center heavily on science and engineering, a field that still remains dominated by men, but thanks to a continued push nationally to attract young females to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, she is among a growing number of girls who are focusing on science careers.

“I was interested in all the topics, but engineering and science really caught my attention,” Golden said. “I’m keeping my options open, but if I had to do a field of engineering, I would definitely go for chemistry and mechanics.”

Golden is one of 40 rising eighth-grade girls from across Oklahoma participating in the Tech Trek week-long, residential, STEM camp at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Tech Trek immerses girls in a world that empowers and encourages them to think about themselves as future scientists, engineers, mathematicians and computer specialists.

Tech Trek isn’t the only program targeted middle-school females in Oklahoma. Three dozen local high school girls also participated in a STEM camp at Francis Tuttle Technology Center and AT&T this week, all designed to encourage women to pursue the hard science fields.

According to workforce experts in Oklahoma, filling STEM-related fields in the state remains a challenge, but targeting younger students may be the key.


“Tech Trek is a STEM camp for seventh-grade girls only,” said Cindi Albrightson of Tech Trek. “The reason we do that is that AAUW (American Association of University Women) did a study and they realized that STEM careers were mostly dominated by men because, in about the seventh grade, girls started changing their minds. ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘Boys do that; girls don’t do that.’ So that’s why we focus on seventh-grade girls. It’s a very intense camp.”

Each girl is assigned a core course in fields like engineering or mathematics. They complete 12 hours in each core course, which utilizes hands-on project and teaching techniques.

Campers also take part in activities like building and programming robots, extracting their own DNA, learning how computer simulations are used to predict weather patterns and more. According to AAUW, Tech Trek has been shown to significantly increase girls’ self-confidence and their interest in and excitement about the STEM fields, which is why AAUW is expanding Tech Trek to more and more states each year.

“This is our fifth year,” Albrightson said. “We see girls who say ‘I didn’t realize I could do that.’ Someone has told them that only boys do that, and then they do it, and they realize they can do it and are successful at it. I had one young lady last who wasn’t 100 percent sure she could do it, but she was very successful. I ran into her in October, and she came running up to tell me that she dropped a PE class and took an engineering class instead.”

On Thursday, the Tech Trek students spent half a day at Devon Energy, one of Tech Trek’s major sponsors, to explore robotics, data collection, geology, IT security and more. Devon also sponsored a half day at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum for the girls to participate in an engineering forensics exercise.

Catherine Oster, manager of business performance and an engineer at Devon, said offering girls a hands-on look at the hard sciences is vital to attracting more females to the fields.

“I’m an engineer, and this is a pivotal age where they can get discouraged by peers or by different things. But if we compel them and interest them now, we can give them a real practical and real exciting glimpse into what the future is like. We need to work harder at a younger age to compel them to pursue it.”

The five-day camp at Francis Tuttle also included sessions at campuses across the metro, and sessions were taught by instructors who have worked in various careers ranging from Aerospace Engineering to IT Security. The camp’s final session was held Friday morning at iFly, where the students had the opportunity to participate in flight-related experiments before taking flight in iFly’s tunnel.

 The participants, including 36 girls from area high schools, are current or incoming students in the Francis Tuttle Computer Science and Pre-engineering Academies.

The girls were invited to attend a five-day STEM camp, thanks to a $20,000 contribution from AT&T at no cost to the girls who attended.

AT&T’s support for the program is part of a nationwide effort to build a viable, creative and adaptive workforce that is prepared to face the changing needs of employers and customers.


A 2010 research report by AAUW called Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) presented an in-depth look at eight key research findings that point to environmental and social barriers — including stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s progress in STEM.

According to the report, stereotyping remains a big barrier. Stereotype threat arises in situations where a negative stereotype is relevant to evaluating performance. A female student taking a math test experiences an extra cognitive and emotional burden of worry related to the stereotype that women are not good at math.

A reference to this stereotype, even one as subtle as taking the test in a room of mostly men, can adversely affect her test performance. When the burden is removed, however, her performance will improve. Stereotype threat is one compelling explanation for why women remain underrepresented in STEM fields.

These barriers expose the lack of skilled workers and skilled female workers in a regional economy, especially in fields like engineering and biotechnology.

Oklahoma’s education system also encourages partnerships with business, industry and the philanthropic community like the GE Foundation's launch of STEM Empowers OK,  the AEP Foundation's grant for Credit Counts program and more.

STEM academies through Oklahoma’s CareerTech system have been in place for many years now, and experts say the early efforts are paying off. Women and minorities especially are targeted, since studies have shown they fall behind academically in the hard science fields.

CareerTech’s STEM academies are offered at many Oklahoma high schools and technical institutes in fields like pre-engineering, biomedical and biotech.

“We also have programs in lower grades that are STEM oriented,” said Paula Bowles, chief communications and marketing officer for CareerTech. “We have 28 STEM academies that we offer at tech centers throughout the state that schools can utilize.”

In 2015, Oklahoma averaged 6,000 high school students enrolled in the pre-engineering academies. Approximately 800 students were enrolled in CareerTech’s 20 bio-medical STEM academies.

Other programs, like Project Lead the Way, are also open to high school students and are credited with boosting interest in the hard science fields.

For Golden and the other girls learning STEM at Tech Trek, the camp peaked their interest.

“I’m really interested in anything to do with hydraulics and pneumatics,” she said. “It’s interesting to me.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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