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Tech camps, other programs hope to keep girls interested in STEM fields

For years, 13-year-old Kyleigh Hall has spent her summers at a tech camp at Towson University, using the time to achieve her dream of one day being a computer programmer like her mom.

But Kyleigh's interest in technology is an exception, as experts say that many girls' interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math wanes as they get older because of socialization and lack of exposure and access. The loss is so prevalent that high schools, universities and companies in Baltimore and Maryland are trying to get more girls hooked on STEM fields early in their educational careers.

The camp, which ends today, has been hosted by iD Tech, a Silicon Valley-based company that focuses on educating kids about technology during the summer. Kyleigh was one of just five girls at the camp of 60 children.

"We try really hard to make women feel as comfortable as they possibly can in this environment," said camp instructor Adina Shanholtz, one of two female instructors who act as role models for girls at the camp.

Around the room in Towson University's student union on a recent day, children worked on computers, hovered around desks and built mechanical arms with Legos. Kyleigh, an eighth-grader from Lutherville-Timonium, was designing a game; the week before, she had worked on programming and Javascript.

The campers and the courses change each week during the summer, varying from video game design, coding and programming to robotics and work with Legos.

"I think [tech camps] can have a really positive impact," said Kris De Welde, associate professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University. "They can really have an impact on what [girls] see themselves capable of doing ... on girls' interest and maintaining their interest."

De Welde says that STEM fields are losing women, despite a "cultural recognition" that society needs to start encouraging girls to go into those fields. In fact, the loss of girls is so prevalent that researchers call it a "leaking pipeline." Girls and boys show equal interest in STEM subjects until middle school; then girls' interest begins to fade.

The all-girls Catholic High School of Baltimore and other schools in the area are offering specialized STEM programs to students in hopes of getting and keeping girls' interest.

Catholic High School Principal Marti Meyd wrote in an email that the school's STEM program prepares students for college and careers, "inspires future generations" of women to "pursue careers for the global good," reinforces women's roles in STEM fields and breaks down stereotypes.

"The idea is that by exposing students to curriculum early on in high school, they are encouraged to major in and pursue careers" in STEM," said Lee Conderacci, director of enrollment for the school. "We want to encourage girls to change the face of STEM fields and pursue opportunities, even though historically [these fields] were not available to their gender."

Outreach to students can also be found at colleges and tech companies. Once women get to college, they are hugely outnumbered in the fields of computer science, engineering and physics, as men earn about 82 percent of the degrees in each of those three fields, according to the National Science Board.

The Women in Engineering program at the University of Maryland, College Park strives to introduce women to engineering and keep them there. It fulfills part of that mission with outreach to students in fourth through 12th grades, said director Paige Smith. Girls can get involved in one-week programs over the summer and one-day programs throughout the year, and university students also visit K-12 classrooms.

At first, College Park's program was limited to 11th- and 12th-graders, but it was expanded more than 10 years ago to younger children because "it's almost too late" once girls and boys get to high school, Smith said.

"Even if they choose not to go into engineering, they at least have a basic understanding of what it is," Smith said.

It's important to help children understand how math and science can be applied to helping with societal problems, Smith said, which can especially appeal to girls.

Some companies are concerned that fewer women are getting STEM degrees, affecting diversity in the workplace and making it difficult to fill jobs.

The Verizon Foundation hosts many programs around the country to get girls as well as low-income and underserved students involved in STEM, focusing its efforts on middle-school children.

"There's not enough students now who have problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to go into STEM fields, nor do they want to," said Justina Nixon-Saintil, education program director for the foundation. "I think that is where people see the urgency. Companies want to hire women."

Kelly Mack, vice president of undergraduate STEM education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said a multipronged approach is needed to even the disparity.

"I think we also have to pay attention to the climate and environment girls find themselves in when they get to college. ... If we don't address [it] at the undergraduate level, we still run the risk of losing women," she said.

Experts say women are often a minority in their classes and aren't shown female role models in their field, making it appear inaccessible to them as a career.

The key to keeping them involved in STEM may lie in camps like the one at Towson.

"It's been really fun for the last few days," said camp attendee Annalee Nelson, 11, who said she enjoyed playing the video game Minecraft.

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