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At Girls-Only STEM Camp, Students Build Stuff For A Better World — And Their Confidence

Here’s the assignment for high school girls at one Dallas summer camp: Dream up an everyday item that’s cheaper and safer to use than what’s out there now — then build it.  

These campers are interested in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM education. They’re spending part of the summer at Southern Methodist University, in the Deason Innovation Gym, creating new things and exercising their brains.

One team is working on a solution for a timely problem in Texas: hot car deaths. 

The beeping inside the gym seems incessant. It’s the alarm going off from the child carseat. 

“If it goes above 26 degrees Celsius or 80 degrees Fahrenheit, then it starts beeping, if there’s pressure or motion,” Sandra Villagrana, 17, explains.

The pressure to create this alarm seems obvious. Texas leads all other states in the most deaths of children left in hot cars. Sandra’s team member, 16-year-old Madison Maya, says a cellphone alert also makes sense.

“We were thinking of doing an app where it would sync up to your phone,” Madison says. “But apps are really complicated, so we try to stay away from that right now.”   

Madison says that’ll be Phase Two. Their project’s not finished. On the work bench sits their 6-by-3-inch punch board with spaghetti-like wires connected to sensors, a circuit board wired to an alarm, and a power supply.    

"I've definitely seen other women sort of pushed aside."

Why a girls-only camp

For the seventh straight summer, low-income high school STEM students from across North Texas have spent two weeks at the SMU innovation camp. Summer program director Heather Hankamer says early on, she learned single-sex camps work best.

“The males always gravitated towards being the ones that built something,” Hankamer says. “And the females were not included in that. And also for the boys, it pushes them to be more creative.”

But for the young women in this STEM camp, single-sex education isn’t new. Many of these campers have been in girls-only schools for years. Sandra Villagrana attends Fort Worth’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

“I love working with tools,” Villagrana says. “I’m obsessed with screwdrivers and hammers and tools. I really like fixing things. I really like the building of it, everything. I’m not really into the computer part. I like that, too. But I’m more of the building aspect.”

Megan Scott, an SMU engineering student working here as a counselor, knows how valuable this camp can be. 

“I’ve definitely seen other women sort of pushed aside,” Scott says. “And so I’ve always worked really hard making sure that I was not only proving I was competent enough to do anything, but I was like extra-competent.”

Scott says she likes being the role model for these students who love to build things the way she does. But it’s been a bit of a battle, at least with her grandparents.

“They’re like, ‘You’ll be a great cook.’ And I was like, ‘No. I want to go do stuff. I want to go make stuff,’” Scott says. “They were really into that for my brothers and not so much for me, and I was just like, ‘That’s over. I will do what I want to do. And I’m going to make it great.’”

"If I put my mind to it, I can do it."

Learning about themselves

Camper Htee Shee, 18, shares the attitude. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, she’ll be a senior at Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Dallas. She contributed her artistic talent to the four-woman team that’s making solar-powered blinds. They close when sensing light and open automatically when it gets dark.    

“I’m very visual,” Htee says, looking at her diagrams on the white board. “Whenever they come up with an idea, I usually go to the board and draw it out and plan it out so they can see it in total scale because they need to visualize it in order to create it.”

Htee’s artistically talented, but she’s been intimidated by math for years — until this camp.

“I didn’t like working with numbers,” Htee says. “Coming here, I was forced to work with numbers and be more precise. So, I learned that I’m pretty good at it, although I’ve been telling myself that I’m not good at it. Like, if I put my mind to it, I can do it.”

And now, Htee says, she will. The camp has given her a confidence boost as she approaches her final year of high school. She plans on tackling what she’s long avoided: coding.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.