The University of Arizona College of Engineering, in partnership with Girls Scouts of Southern Arizona, this week is holding the first-ever Imagine IT, a summer engineering camp for girls that is designed around search and rescue scenarios.
The idea behind the camp is to get girls interested in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, math and engineering. Getting girls engaged in STEM has long been a challenge for K-12 and higher education institutions.
"We know giving things a bigger purpose helps engage girls," said Michelle Higgins, senior director of STEM and education relations for Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona. "Most girls want to go into career fields where they are helping someone."
Because girls don't always make the connection between engineering and helping people, but are very interested in social issues, she said, "our programs and activities focus on how STEM makes the world a better place."
About 25 girls, mostly from southern Arizona middle schools, are participating in the residential engineering camp, which began Sunday and concludes Friday. During their time on campus, they are exploring natural disaster scenarios ranging from forest fires and floods to earthquakes.
In one of the camp activities, girls will design packs for search and rescue animals. In another, they will design and build PVC piping shelters that can be easily packaged and transported and quickly set up for disaster victims. And each team will build a robot from scratch for a specific search and rescue mission.
"They will learn how to conceptualize and implement the fundamentals of engineering in a robotics setting," said Ted Gatchell, coordinator of recruitment, retention and outreach at the College of Engineering. "They will partner mechanical components such as motors and gears with electrical components and use several programming languages to form a working autonomous search and rescue robot."
Because research shows girls are not as likely to thrive in competitive STEM environments and prefer a cooperative approach to problem solving, all camp activities and projects will take place in groups, and time will be devoted each day to reflection on accomplishments and expectations.
"In general, girls prefer a collaborative leadership style, rather than the traditional, top-down, command-and-control approach," said Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Anna Maria Chávez, who earned her juris doctorate at the UA. "The cooperative learning process gives girls the opportunity to develop leadership and STEM skills in a way that feels comfortable and natural for them."
While the number of women entering many engineering fields has increased over the last decade, electrical and computer engineering and mechanical engineering are still a hard sell to girls.
"So we are emphasizing computer programming and mechanical engineering, fields that still do not have as many women going into them as some of the other engineering fields," Higgins said.
Instrumental in developing the curriculum for the camp were Katherine Salthouse, Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona STEM coordinator, Scott Weiler, a teacher at Amphitheater Middle School in Tucson, and Nikitha Ramohalli, a UA electrical and computer engineering student.
"They really brought this camp to life," Gatchell said.
Scholarship support for the camp is being provided by the American Association of University Women, and program costs are funded by Intel. The camp will be staffed by female College of Engineering undergraduates, Girl Scouts STEM program experts, and representatives from the Girl Scouts Social Justice program, which works with at-risk girls.
"Partnering with the UA College of Engineering and Girls Scouts to inspire more girls to become engineers, make a difference and change the world is a win-win," said Cathleen Barton, Southwest education manager for Intel.