GIRRRLS Camp Exposes Local Middle School Girls to Engineering

GIRRRLS camper making mirrors for her kaleidoscope.
GIRRRLS camper making mirrors for her kaleidoscope.

August 22, 2012

"This is the kind of camp that you'd want your own kid to go to."

This was the impression of Nano-CEMMS educator Carrie Kouadio, who taught a number of sessions in this summer's 2012 GIRRRLS Exploring Science and Engineering Camp. Held in the heart of campus at the Campus Middle School for Girls, the week-long camp, which ran from July 30 through August 3, 2012, gave 28 rising fifth, sixth, and seventh grade local girls a taste of a variety of engineering disciplines.

Previously involved with the G.A.M.E.S. camp, which last year changed the age group of girls it was targeting to concentrate on high-school-aged girls, GIRRRLS Camp Director Susan Linnemeyer saw a niche that a science/ engineering summer camp targeting middle school girls could fill. So she began to network with colleagues to fill the void: "The Campus Middle School and I thought it was very important to build a pipeline and link elementary through middle school, so we decided this camp would be beneficial."


GIRRLS campers were exposed to a broad, interdisciplinary range of science and engineering disciplines, such as computer science (including a visit to Wolfram Research); electrical engineering (in the Exploration of a Cell Phone lesson); materials science and engineering, including working with organic polymers, geo polymers (in the Geo Polymers Related to Global Warming lesson), and fly ash; and aerospace, including building nitinol/balsa wood airplanes, visiting the wind tunnel, Robotic QuARL Aerodynamics, flying radio-controlled helicopters in Robot Quad Roters, and the Lunabotics Mining NASA competition.

Camper pouring polymer into her golf ball "mold."
Camper making a superball pours polymer into a golf ball "mold."

In the camp, the girls also explored nanotechnology via many hands-on activities taught by Nano-CEMMS staff. Carrie Kouadio, who taught many of the sessions, reported that the girls had a very lab-intensive experience. First, during an introduction to Nanotechnology, they learned the nanotechnology behind magic sand, sun block, nano fabric, and fog eliminator. Campers also did an oven mitt activity taught by Melissa Reder, which linked the development of tools and processes for building automobiles with what is occurring in nanotechnology today. Students wore oven mitts to build cars made of LEGOs to discover how working at the nanoscale requires new, more precise tools to replace the current tools. They also did hands-on activities with nitinol, a shape memory alloy, and investigated bloom (the whitish appearance) on chocolate (which included the onerous task of tasting the chocolate).

Another fun lab activity involved making superballs. Each girl got to make her own. This included making design decisions, such as what color of glitter to use to decorate it, and determining the ratio of chemicals to use to create a harder or softer ball. (This is a math connection in the lab.) She then measured then poured polymer into a mold (a golf ball into which she herself had drilled a hole). They also constructed kaleidoscopes using mirrors they themselves had made on glass slides using Tollen's reagent and dextrose. Other activities included making gold and silver Nanoparticles, dabbling in 3D printing, and learning about and trying out a Scanning Electron Microscope.

Carrie Kouadio demonstrates how one piece of the kaleidoscope should look
During the lesson on kaleidoscopes, Nano-CEMMS educator Carrie Kouadio shows the girls how one of the components should look.

Since this was the first year of operation for the GIRRRLS camp, Linnemeyer expressed concerns about the camp organization, for example, how the fifth graders might interact with the older girls. However, she reported that it had gone well. "What we showed them at each of the departments—it was fine at those three grade levels. I think the seventh grade girls were challenged, and I think also the fifth grade girls could understand what was going on."

Not only did girls get to interact with girls of different age groups, but girls from different racial-ethnic backgrounds had a chance to learn and work together. Of the 28 girls, eight were African American, and five were Asians.

Kouadio also reported that the campers were engaged: "I used to be a teacher, and it was clear to me that they were wonderful students. They were very attentive, very interested, excited. They were very receptive to suggestions I would make. They were very open to new lab techniques, to learning new ways of doing things."

Kouadio also believes that being exposed to both peers and adults who are into science might have a positive impact on the girls: "It was a nice environment for the girls to be in—to be surrounded by other girls who are really interested in science and engineering, and then surrounded by adults who are also really interested in science and engineering. It's like an ideal little world."

In its first year of operation, the GIRRLS camp was sponsored by the Engineering Information Foundation, Wolfram Research, and the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana. Support from these groups included 14 scholarships, including four full scholarships. Scholarships were awarded based upon economic status and students' essays.

GIRRRLS camper experiencing one of Illinois' wind tunnels.
GIRRRLS camper experiences one of Illinois' wind tunnels.

Linnemeyer hopes there will be a summer 2013 edition of the camp, and intends to approach other companies or agencies for support. As follow-up, Linnemeyer hopes to keep the girls informed about events in the community, and also plans to hold two, one-day workshops—one in the fall and one in the spring—addressing engineering disciplines other than those to which the girls were exposed during the camp. She also intends to develop a newsletter to inform parents about science-related things they can do with their girls.

Will any of these girls end up choosing science as a career? Linnemeyer believes the camp had a positive impact on the girls regarding the possibility of a career in science.

Camper flies radio-controlled helicopter fitted with bright yellow bumpers, to protect the students from injury.
The campers enjoyed flying the radio-controlled helicopter, which was fitted with bright yellow bumpers to protect the students from injury.

"I think it impacted the girls very well…Only three or four girls of the 28 indicated at the beginning of the camp that they were interested in becoming a scientist or engineer. At the end of the camp, at least three quarters were interested."

Linnemeyer also shared an inspiring anecdote about a young girl who, it appears, had had a career-choice epiphany.

"I know it's early in their lives, but one girl even said, ''I finally found my passion in life!'" recalls Linnemeyer. "And she was a girl who wasn't that interested in engineering at the beginning, but she saw through the aerospace tours that she could actually combine her love of drawing with airplane design."

Regarding whether the might camp influence participants to choose careers in nanotechnology down the road, Kouadio wouldn't say one way or another. But she was pleased to be able to expose them to the discipline:

GIRRRLS camper examines bloom on chocolate during hands-on activity.
GIRRRLS camper examines bloom on chocolate during hands-on activity.

"What I like about what we do is that, at least, they now have that as an option. That becomes one of their options. They know about science and engineering, and they've had some experience in those fields, so they can make a more educated choice about what path to pursue for their careers. Which I think is important—to have the options clear to you from a young age."

Most of the girls' parents were quite pleased with the camp. One parent, Leslie Preslar, commented: "The interaction with women faculty was terrific. Thank you so much for a great program." Another, Carl Bernacchi, responded that he particularly appreciated:"The exposure to concepts in engineering through a hands-on approach."

One impressive final endorsement about the quality of the camp came from instructor Carrie Kouadio: "It was really a nice camp. It was the kind of camp that, if my child was old enough, I would have sent her to it."

Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative

Photographs by Elizabeth Innes and Christy Glaze, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: K-6 Outreach, 6-8 Outreach, Summer Camp, Women in STEM