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Back on Trek: Program aims to spark interest in STEM fields for 8th-grade girls

HUNTSVILLE — After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Tech Trek has returned to the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

The weeklong event was to raise awareness and interest in STEM fields for rising eighth-grade girls from across the state. This was the seventh time UAH has hosted the residential camp.

A study by the National Science Foundation, “Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics,” revealed that eighth grade is the time when most school-age girls tend to fall away from STEM as an academic path. The American Association of University Women worked to reverse that trend by founding Tech Trek in 1998. Dr. Rhonda Gaede, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UAH, brought the event to the university in 2014.

The weeklong Tech Trek helps raise awareness and interest in STEM fields for rising eighth-grade girls from across the state. (Michael Mercier/UAH).

Rising eighth-grade girls from across the state experienced science and technology and were led by female scientists, engineers and professional. This year’s camp had 64 girls from 24 counties.

“The seventh camp was put off for two years because of COVID,” Gaede, the UAH Tech Trek director, said. “We didn’t feel a virtual camp would give the girls the same experience. We wanted them to be living and working together, with a lot of diversity along as many different dimensions as we could get: Leaders, followers, rural, urban, different ethnicities, so they could learn there are people out there who are different from them.

“Also, to show that we all have gifts we are sharing when we put them all together.”

The camp features intensive hands-on experiments and activities that promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The girls are nominated by their seventh-grade math and science teachers,” Gaede said. “We were concerned about turnout, because we had been away for two years because of COVID and teacher turnover is high. But we had a higher nomination rate than before!. We had around 160 nominated and 140 applied.”

Research shows that girls who see successful women in STEM careers can overcome the stereotypes sometimes associated with these jobs.

“What I’ve seen as an engineering professor is that we actually had a higher percentage of women in engineering when I started in the 90s than we do here in 2022,” Gaede said. “We have a lot of complex problems to solve in today’s world, and we need all hands on deck. We need all of our talent.

“Also, the percentage of families headed by women has increased, and a job with a good wage helps everyone to move forward. In some cases, we are just making people aware of what their options are. We are so fortunate to have a wealth of opportunities here in Huntsville.”

The camp’s curriculum comprises morning and evening activities, several field trips and a Professional Women’s Night to provide invaluable mentoring opportunities for the students.

“Professional Woman’s Night will be held at Dynetics this year, so the girls can talk to them about their stories,” Gaede said. “It’s like that old saying, ‘if you can see one, you can be one.'”

As an example, the girls researched STEM pioneers, such as Madame Curie and presented a skit or a chat or a rap about what they learned.

Rising eighth-grade girls from across the state experienced science and technology projects and were led by female scientists, engineers and professional.(Michael Mercier/UAH).

The participants toured the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and launched rockets. The girls also were to take part in a new activity that will help them visualize their futures in STEM.

“We have a visioning activity where we are going to have them write letters to their future selves about all the things they are doing now,” said Gaede. “We are going to send these off with a QR code that will enable them to follow-up at a later date.”

Camp workshops will emphasize vital fields of study that are especially relevant to today’s STEM challenges and needs.

“Some of the computing fields are the areas in which women are most underrepresented,” Gaede said. “And today we are more reliant on computer technology than ever.

“This year the core experiences will include things like MIT App Inventor and cybersecurity. Washington is No. 1 in the nation for cybersecurity threats, and I understand Huntsville is No. 2. So, Huntsville is kind of all cyber, all the time. We are also doing things with energy – we called it Solar Sisters the last time – and NASA robotics.”

To keep the cost of the camp to a modest $50 per person, Tech Trek relies on the support of sponsors.

“A program like this used to cost $800,” Gaede said. “The idea was to keep it to a minimum contribution that the family makes. Our sponsors vary quite a bit from year to year. PPG has been with us a long time, as well as Women in Defense. This year we also have support from Northrop Grumman, the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, and the UAH office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“Without the Huntsville branch of AAUW, the program never would have gotten started. STEM hadn’t quite exploded back then in the same way it has now. They feel like they’ve kind of planted the seeds. We are using Toyota Foundation money for marketing and communications to spread the good word about Tech Trek. We are also having a camp where we bring teachers on campus at no cost and equip them with things they can take back to their schools for STEM enrichment.”

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