Kathleen Johnson, with a lab partner, thinks through the plan for the Rube Goldberg machine they are building.
Jay Ann Cox | El Defensor Chieftain

Sixty girls from around New Mexico, all going into eighth grade, convened at New Mexico Tech last week for a week-long camp. Abby Cadol and Kathleen Johnson, both from Cottonwood Valley Charter School, were selected from applicants around the state. The focus is on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but the experience has many more life lessons built in, designed to give the girls confidence and choices for their futures.

The camp is called “Tech Trek” which is a nationwide program developed and administered by AAUW, the American Association of University Women. About 10 states have a Tech Trek summer camp, and New Mexico’s is now very conveniently housed at New Mexico Tech. The first two camps were at New Mexico State and New Mexico Highlands, but Socorro’s central location and the NM Tech campus are ideal for all involved, from teachers to counselors to students.

Abby, on the last day of camp, said that the program is helping her “stay open to different options” for future study. She finds that she is interested in both earth and space science.

Kathleen said she got interested in STEM because of her Cottonwood Valley science teacher, Tommie McSherry, and participation in Science Olympiad, a national team competition.

During Tech Trek week, the 60 girls attend classes in the morning, and then do activities/projects in the afternoon. There are 12 different courses offered, and the program schedules students with an eye to broadening their exposure to both topics and instructors.

On Friday, Kathleen and a teammate worked on a “Rube Goldberg” machine in an engineering workshop, alongside three or four other teams tasked with the job of creating a machine that transports a marble through various means. Physics, logic and engineering all come into play.

Abby joined a wildfire demonstration with an instructor who is a retired forest service specialist. They learned about different fuels, causes of combustion, and how the service predicts spread of fires under certain conditions, and how they battle outbreaks.

Evenings are spent with the whole group doing something fun but still STEM-related. For example, one night, there was a “star party” at the observatory and geocaching all over campus Another “eye-opening” evening activity was an activity on the brain, senses and perception.

Abby said her favorite class of the week might be “The Stellar Life Cycle.” Kathleen really enjoyed “Become a Mathematical Thinker.”

To apply for and be accepted to the camp is a rigorous process, which mirrors what students will encounter later in life. First, they are nominated by a teacher and asked to write an essay. The essays are read by a panel of AAUW members, and then interviews are conducted.

Students that are selected are asked to pay a $50 commitment fee, but the rest of the cost is borne by gifts to AAUW and corporate sponsors. Supporting the camp are Honeywell, ExxonMobil, Sandia National Laboratories, Arcosa, as well as New Mexico Tech, New Mexico Children’s Foundation, and Las Vegas, NM, Community Foundation.

Board co-president of Tech Trek Cheri Burch said, “We are looking for kids who are interested in science and working in science” in the future, “but we don’t necessarily choose the straight-A students.” The selection committee looks to create a diverse cohort that demonstrates, as Burch put it, “you don’t have to be a certain kind of person to like STEM.”

For these 13- and 14-year-olds, the residential camp poses some new challenges, such as being away from home for the first time, being grouped with girls from different backgrounds, and maybe the hardest adjustment, handing over their cell phones for most of the camp. But there is a strong support system to help the girls find their footing. They divided into six groups of 10, and each group has an adult coordinator as well as a college-age student coordinator.

One of the student coordinators, Sarah Stanley is from Silver City, and is a junior Tech student majoring in biomedical sciences. She is both a mentor and role model for the girls. Sarah said, “Six years ago (in eighth grade), I didn’t know what STEM was.” But she was active in Science Olympiad, greatly enjoying the bot ball competition. From that experience, she “was very aware of the gender gap” in sciences.

Despite efforts to the contrary, there is still a gender gap in STEM fields, and in some cases, the number of women in STEM has gone down. Tech Trek and AAUW are dedicated to reversing that trend and closing the gap.

Burch emphasized that the camp also teaches confidence, perseverance, and tools for learning that they will take into their careers. In addition to encouraging girls and women to enter STEM fields, “we want them at the table when decisions are made,” said Burch.

Jay Ann Cox, El Defensor Chieftain Editor