At the GE Girls @ Rensselaer summer camp, 22 middle school girls from the Schenectady City School District spent a week learning about careers in science, technology, engineering and math. On Thursday, they took an evening off to enjoy a barbecue with their parents and to celebrate their achievements.
In a speech, Joanne Kugler, spokeswoman for GE Power and Water and the GE Women’s Alliance, said that the most important part of the camp was getting girls excited about STEM fields.
“Over the next few years, women will make up over 50 percent of the workforce. It’s unfortunate, however, that only 25 percent of the labor pool for STEM fields will be made up of women. We want to get girls excited about STEM fields.”
Terry Leib, a chemical engineer at GE Global Research, said one of her problems growing up was a lack of role models.
“Growing up, I knew I had an interest in STEM fields, but I didn’t know anyone who had a career in them. … Like me, you’re at the point where you might be saying ‘Hmm ... that’s interesting, but what do I do with it?’ ”
All this week, the girls at GE Girls @ Rensselaer have been spending time at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute taking classes and participating in some hands-on learning projects to learn what they can do with a STEM career.
Alice Menis told how the group built paper houses out of index cards on Monday. They tested the houses for stability and strength, based on their designs. They also programmed LEGO robots and built balloon towers.
Zoe White said on Tuesday they made their own video games using a free program called Scratch.
“We learned that it takes a lot of trial and error and troubleshooting to get things working,” she said.
They took a tour of the RPI campus, which she said “is bigger than you might think.”
On Wednesday, they built wind turbines, and on Thursday they worked with LEDs to build glow-domes and flashlights.
White said she enjoyed working with girls who shared her interests.
“It’s very interesting because people can share their interests and actually relate to each other,” she said. “It’s a big privilege to be here.”
Students at the summer camp took some classes with professors at RPI and also interacted with a mentor: a woman working in a STEM field for GE.
“Working with the mentors, you always get some people who are about to graduate and others who have been around here for 10 or more years. They’re two very different areas of expertise,” White explained.
Another student, Loriana Ray, said that the camp was a great opportunity and a lot of fun. She’s more interested in math than science and hopes to become a veterinarian. Ray said she’d like to develop new medicines to help animals.
About the camp, she said: “It’s a lot more information than you get in a regular school class. It’s more hands-on. … It’s fun to be with others who are interested in the same things you are, too. You get to realize that you can do it, that things aren’t as hard as you think as long as you try hard.”
Ray also said she appreciated the opportunity to work with her GE mentor and to learn why people pursue careers in science and technology.
GE Girls @ Rensselaer isn’t the first summer camp of its kind. According to a news release, the pilot program was a partnership between GE and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year. This year, RPI and the Milwaukee School of Engineering have partnered with GE. The RPI program is funded by a $25,000 grant from GE.
“A little over a year ago, our chairman, Jeff Immelt, said that he thought there was room for improvement in the number of women we have in technology roles,” Kulger said. “He challenged the GE Women’s Network to come up with a program to grow a pipeline to get women into STEM fields.”
Kugler said that GE is interested in expanding the series of camps to two more universities, possibly in Connecticut, Texas, or Kentucky. After that, she said, they’ll focus more on maintaining the camps they have.
Schenectady City School District Superintendent Laurence Spring said he appreciated the partnership with GE.
“I think it’s amazing. It’s a fabulous opportunity for girls to learn more about science and technology.” He said girls grow up assuming they cannot do something, especially in STEM subjects, “so to be able to hear from experts, to see what these real career opportunities are, is amazing. … They’re clearly having fun and enjoying themselves, too,” he said.
Leib gave a final piece of advice to girls interested in STEM fields.
“Just keep pursuing math and science in high school,” she said. “So many times, I see girls opting out of science and math classes. … I tell them to take them, take them, take them.”