Girls learn STEM at summer camp

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Sophia Bisbee solders wires to the circuitboard of her super-sound siren during a GlobalGirls workshop. (Photo by Sam Heller)

From July 31 through August 4, GlobalFoundries invited a group of 30 seventh- and eighth-grade girls from 11 local schools to the tech firm’s sprawling Essex Jct. campus for their GlobalGirls summer camp program.

Participants were selected on a first-come, first-served basis from an applicant pool of students nominated by teachers for their talents in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

They attended engineering workshops and tried their hands at computer animation, Lego robot building and programming, wiring and soldering an electronic siren, laptop assembly, semiconductor manufacturing and making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

In the latter workshop, 15 campers watched a live demo on the properties of liquid nitrogen, followed by a PowerPoint presentation outlining the basics of ice cream production.

They were then asked to work together in small groups to design a process for making ice cream on an industrial scale, by arranging cutouts of industrial equipment on a posterboard diagram.

To complete the task, campers explained, they drew on a combination of information from the presentation and their own background knowledge in STEM fields. Several were veteran engineers even before attending GlobalGirls, and they had the battle-scars to prove it.

“I’ve stapled my hand before,” one girl said, without looking up from the ice cream project.

“Oh, yeah,” replied another, nonchalantly, “I was cutting through duct tape once, and I cut off a part of my thumb.”

She wagged her thumb to show off the scar before sliding a complex looking piece of equipment into place within the rapidly expanding diagram.

Meanwhile, in a separate room, the other 15 campers were wiring and soldering circuit boards to make piercingly loud electronic instruments which the campers called super-sound sirens.

“It’s basically an electric simple circuit with a potentiometer that adjusts pitch,” explained seventh-grader Sophia Bisbee.

Like many of the other campers, Sophia has attended previous workshop-styled, STEM-based summer camps.

“I did one at the Maritime museum, where we built a remotely operated vehicle – an ROV, which is kind of like what we’re doing in this class, like soldering with wires. But this one’s the best one,” she said of GlobalGirls.

In other workshops, campers made Lego robots, laptop computers and ice cream. (Photo by Sam Heller)

In part, that’s because most STEM programs are co-ed, whereas GlobalGirls is a single-sex summer camp, designed to empower young women to succeed in statistically male-dominated fields.

“A lot of the time, boys are interpreted as like, smarter in math or science,” Sophia said, “This really shows everyone that we can also do it.”

According to a 2016 report by the National Science Board, women make up roughly 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only 29 percent of people employed in STEM fields.

According to Joan Williams, a professor and legal scholar who focuses extensively on issues facing women in the workplace, this disparity is caused by systematic biases and discrimination.

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Williams cited a 2012 double-blind study as evidence. The randomized study asked science faculty at research-intensive universities to review job applications from fictitious students given a male or female name.

In the end, faculty rated male applicants “as significantly more competent and hirable” than the women, who had identical application materials, Williams wrote. Two years later, a study found “both men and women were twice as likely to hire a man for a job that required math,” she wrote.

Williams’ research suggests Sophia, who wants to be a doctor or maybe a structural engineer, will eventually need to contend with hiring biases, skepticism from colleagues and mentors and a whole host of other institutional hurdles in order to compete with her equally or less talented male peers.

That’s a lot of pressure for even adult engineers to handle. But for two weeks every summer, GlobalGirls’ environment gives girls like Sophia a space to ignore the institutional challenges ahead and focus on the soldering gun at hand.

The trick is to try not to touch the hot part, she joked, “and always wear your safety glasses.”

She then picked up her circuitboard, strapped on her goggles and got to work.