While the temperature soared outside, 44 middle and high school girls tried to keep their cool under stressful situations like learning how to code, meeting and working with new people, and solving myriad technical puzzles. Welcome to UNLV’s Engaging Girls in Ubiquitous Intelligence and Computing summer camp.
Nationally, women represent more than 55 percent of undergraduate college students. However, they represent only 20 percent of engineering and computer science undergraduates. In addition, they continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers nationwide.
“Exposing women to engineering is important because it is rare to see women represented in this field,” said Kennedy Wharton, a UNLV electrical and computer engineering student and mentor for the camp. “We want to show young girls that they can be engineers and have an impact in this world.”
One way UNLV is working to increase that percentage is by providing female middle and high school students the opportunities to learn intelligent and computing technologies in a hands-on environment to enhance their abilities and confidence in STEM subjects.
The camp, led by engineering professors Mei Yang and Venki Muthukumar, and education professor Shaoan Zhang, is a five-week hands-on experience where students not only learn coding and robotics, but also build interactive electronic objects. In addition, 10 Clark County School District teachers and UNLV engineering students were selected to mentor students and help them in learning the Python programming language, working with Arduino microcontrollers, robotics design, and leading team projects.
“I have learned a lot about programming and robotics in general, especially Python,” said Maria Ramirez, an East Career and Technical Academy high school student and summer camp participant. “And I also learned that not everything has to work out the first time. Trial and error is part of the fun.”
According to Yang, hands-on problem solving and encouragement to try, fail, and figure it out is often lacking for girls in STEM classes.
“It was important to us to create a positive learning environment for the students as girls are frequently outnumbered in coding and robotics classes and boys demand a more dominant role in the creation process, relegating girls to a position of ‘watching.’ Here, they really start to shine and see that they can do it and that it’s fun.”
The camp aims to encourage participants from schools in poorer districts and minority students who may have less of an opportunity to be exposed to STEM experiences.
Another important aspect of the camp was to form a virtual learning community and help the girls establish long-term mentorship.
“This camp has taught me so much,” Ramirez said. “It gave me a chance to meet new people and make many fun memories! Everyone was always kind and there to help. I think these friendships and acquaintances will be something I remember for the rest of my life.”
Thanks to a three-year, $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, this opportunity for both students and mentors will continue over the next two summers.
“It was a great opportunity to be involved in my community and hopefully have a positive impact on the future generation,” Wharton said.