PacSci Perspectives

All-Female STEM Camp Graduation

by | Aug 16, 2016

On July 21, Will Daugherty, CEO of Pacific Science Center, spoke at the graduation ceremony for The Links Science Camp for Curious Minds, a summer camp for 21 local girls of color, grades 6-8 that took place July 18-21. “Science is not about what you know—it’s about asking questions. It’s about doing experiments.” As the first summer camp of it’s kind, Pacific Science Center partnered with The Links, Incorporated, one of the nation’s oldest and largest volunteer-service organizations with over 12,000 African American women in 284 chapters throughout the U.S. The idea for the camp itself was born out of this question: why are women, particularly women of color, so drastically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math fields?

Women, by numbers, are vastly underrepresented in science and math fields. Camps like this introduce and encourage a relationship with mentors, which help those who otherwise might not have the resources.  Women and people of color girls are particularly underrepresented. For generations, women weren’t given access to math and science classes required to complete a STEM-related degree, and “catching up” after generations of this kind of discrimination is difficult; if no women are teaching sciences, who is going to encourage a new generation of women to participate?

Women of color and low-income students face additional hurdles to STEM careers. In fact, “the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to any selective college or university.” STEM fields require extensive education, which is expensive. Students who are poor, female, or not white find themselves at a disadvantage before they start—and being in more than one of those categories makes it even more difficult to break into a predominantly white male field (populated by students who have had the opportunity to prepare for college). Yet, as shown by their high performances in public education programs, it isn’t for a lack of potential. James A. Harris, a nuclear chemist, was the first black scientist to contribute to the discovery of new elements (he is credited for the discovery of rutherfordium and dubnium). He overcame the harsh racist academic system of the 1960s and 1970s and was instrumental in new scientific discoveries. STEM camps aimed at girls of color seek to create a path to success for students like Harris.

Daugherty is attempting to combat the obstacles these girls face, in part because he had mentors help him overcome economic hardships. In his speech he recalled how his family’s financial struggles affected him as a child. He knew his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, but he excelled in math and sciences classes. His teachers took note and nurtured his skills so that he could go on to college. Mentorship, he says, is the reason he went on to be so successful: without someone there to answer his questions and encourage his interests, he wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.

As he wrapped up his address, Daughery encouraged camp goers to continue to pursue their academic goals, but he also emphasized something even more important. He stressed the young women’s role as encouragers. “Tell them [your peers] that you want to be scientists too!” And that is really what this camp is all about: encouraging young women in science and cultivating more positive mentor (and peer) relationships.