• Joanne Smith

Anything Boys Can Do Girls Can Do, Too!

I’ve spent the last three exhausting weeks in the throes of chaos, directing a summer camp for more than 90 teen and pre-teen girls. Many races, socio-economic backgrounds and a variety of learning abilities came together for this camp. There were extroverts, bookworms, itty bitties who skipped everywhere they went and brooding teenagers who were harder to impress. There were jammy pants, flipflops, too-high heels, lots of untied shoestrings, unwashed morning hair and full makeup. Several misplaced phones, a few head and stomach aches, lots of Band-aids distributed and some hurt feelings soothed.

Girls ages 9 to 15 were all in one venue for full days, Monday through Friday for three weeks, so, you guessed it…there was drama. There was crying. There was screaming. There was music, singing and dancing. There was pizza, ice cream, fruit snacks and the dreaded school lunch food. There was occasional whining, some attitudes, LOTS OF NOISE, spills and messes!

There also were field trips, guest speakers and a final project expo to showcase the girls’ learning and creative thinking.

Yep, we had it all at camp, except for one thing – limitations.

Amidst all the fun, drama and noise, there was learning and discovery. There were new concepts in 3D modeling and printing; circuits and coding; virtual and augmented reality; design thinking, empathetic problem solving and hands-on creativity. There were opportunities with no race, background or gender boundaries, and the girls were encouraged to explore as far as their imaginations and initiative would take them.

This was the Verizon Innovative Learning Girls’ Summer STEM Camp, funded by the Verizon Foundation in partnership with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) and hosted by Independence Community College and Fab Lab ICC. The only camp of its kind in Kansas, ours was one of only 16 such camps happening across the country this summer. Exclusively formatted for middle-school age girls, the tuition-free camp – yes, it was entirely FREE - was designed to expose girls to the above concepts and stimulate their interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), career fields where women are historically under-represented.

Indeed, while for the 15 days of camp the opportunities for these young females were limitless, real-world statistics tell a different story that hasn’t changed in more than a decade. According to NACCE’s research, a staggering 86 percent of engineers and 74 percent of computer professionals in today’s workforce are men. The percentage of women in STEM careers has not improved since 2001, specifically within engineering and computing fields.

Programs like Verizon Innovative Learning for girls and the Fab Lab’s “Women 4 Women” initiative for adult women are working to make a dent in the statistics. Women 4 Women, supported by a two-year grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, is designed to encourage women of all ages and backgrounds to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and explore new opportunities, either for business or pleasure. Launched in April, the program incorporates insights from existing women entrepreneurs (an advisory team, if you will) into educational workshops for other women interested in discovering new outlets (for creative thinking) and inlets (for profit and/or fulfillment). Examples of workshops offered thus far are “Problem Solving the Entrepreneurial Way” with a multi-business woman entrepreneur; “Women in the Workshop” featuring opportunities to make projects in the Fab Lab; and “Business Building Basics,” with sage advice from a retired female accountant. Some of our Women 4 Women program participants also got involved as volunteers for our STEM camp, modeling character and offering encouragement and frank advice to our campers. It was the perfect mash-up.

The STEM camp and the launch of the Women 4 Women program are great first steps – huge strides, really, in too-high heels, flip flops and untied shoes - on the journey to changing the face and gender of entrepreneurship and business leadership in southeast Kansas and beyond. The journey will continue with monthly workshops for both our STEM girls and our adult women participants, followed by a repeat of the three-week girls’ camp next summer.

No doubt the coming year will be exhausting and jam-packed, with everything from drama to dancing…everything but limits, that is… No boys and no boundaries allowed!

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