The Tech Trek campers are nominated by teachers and have to complete an application and interview process.
Cathy Cook | El Defensor Chieftain photos

Seventh-grade girls from across New Mexico gathered at New Mexico Tech campus last week to learn about engi­neering, astronomy, coding and more during the annual Tech Trek-NM.

The week-long science, tech­nology, engineering and math summer camp is sponsored by the American Association of University Women, and costs participants $50 per camper to stay in the Tech dorms for a week and learn with hands-on science projects. The campers are nominated by teachers and have to complete an application and interview process.

A Tech Trek student does a test run with her motorized car she de￾signed in a Tech Trek class.

This was the first in-person camp since the pandemic began. For the last two years, the camp mailed out boxes with labs and projects for participants to com­plete at home.

The girls go on field trips, like to Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, take core classes like the Joy of Coding and learn through hands-on proj­ects such as collecting their own DNA to create DNA necklaces.

“What they learn is to use the pipette,” said retired biol­ogy professor Rebecca Reiss, who teaches the girls to extract DNA via a “swish and spit” and do crude DNA prep to make the necklaces. A pipette is a tool used in fields like molecular biology and genetics to measure very small amounts.

For Magdalena’s Haile Torres, put­ting DNA in a little bead was a tie for her favorite activity, along with her core class in coding, something she’d never done before.

“We already did some coding projects where we connected this servo (motor) to the circuit board and made this little thing spin. Then we did LED lights and made them blink. There were a few other ones, too,” said Torres.

She wants to be a welder when she grows up, just like her dad, and her dream colleges are New Mexico Tech and the University of New Mexico Valencia campus.

A few hallways over, 13-year-old Niki Planck of Socorro was in a classroom full of girls learning about mechanical engineering and applying that knowledge to design motorized toy cars.

Girls write code to program red, green and blue LED lights at Tech Trek. Many of the girls had no experience coding before the week-long summer camp.

“I just like figuring out how to place the gears so that it does what I want it to,” said Planck, who hopes to be a computer scientist or engineer when she grows up. “It’s like a whole bunch of tiny puzzles in a larger puzzle in a large box.”

Planck was tinkering with her car trying to do an 81 to 1, meaning the motor would turn a gear on one side 81 times, and then the attached wheel would turn once for every 81 rota­tions of the gear.

Cheryl Leung, who taught the class, has a master’s in electrical engineering, but left the field to teach middle school because “that’s when a lot of girls opt-out of STEM.” The percentage of female engineers has not changed significantly since she graduated, and the only way she sees change is by giving girls hands-on opportunities to learn about the field.

“It’s giving them experiences that will be rich enough so that they can see that they can change the world,” said Leung.

Alejandra Mayorga, who is getting her master’s in electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech, was helping teach cyber security on the other side of campus.

“When it’s going very well, it’s very boring, but when something goes wrong, it’s absolutely fascinat­ing, and I think that’s what makes me interested,” she said.

Cybersecurity is a neglected field and a newer field, said Mayorga, so it’s good to get people interested in it young.

She tested the girl’s password skills, and they succeeded in writ­ing some very secure passwords. Mayorga’s password cracking pro­gram couldn’t crack any after running for three hours.

One of the students was Socorroan Roe Woods, who tried learning about coding through Kahn Academy and using a little bit of Javascript before, but Tech Trek was her first immersion into coding projects. At the camp, she learned about cyber security attacks and binary code, along with using a Star Wars-themed program to code a droid to complete tasks, not to men­tion making new friends, too.

Woods’s advice to any girls inter­ested in the camp next year is to go for it.

“This is so much fun and an expe­rience I will remember for the rest of my life,” she said.