Subverting Science—and Fighting Sexism—with Girl Power

The Girl Scouts have made headlines in recent years for their radical empowerment of young women. Fortunately, theirs is far from the only summer camp designed to teach women how to change the world. The United Nations’ Girl Up, U.S. State Department and a number of nonprofits and science foundations have joined forces for three summers to sponsor the Women in Science (WiSci) Girls STEAM Camp. This year’s camp just wrapped up a summer of science in Malawi where campers and counselors alike considered the ways technology can prevent gender-based violence.

Creative Commons / NASA

The 2017 camp, which ran from July 30 through August 15, followed in the footsteps of a 2015 pilot program in Rwanda and a 2016 camp in Peru. Each iteration of the camp has sought to give young women skills in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics—fields where they are traditionally under-represented. To fight this inequality, campers at the 2017 program participated in lessons from none other than NASA, Microsoft, Intel and the like.

Campers and counselors alike emphasize the transformative power of the camp. “Some girls are coming from homes where there’s no Wi-Fi. Some girls found out about the camp thanks to Peace Corps officers who helped them apply for the camp. Some girls had to walk three to five kilometers to get to a computer,” says counselor Morgan Wood of Syracuse, New York, who learned about the camp through Girl Up. “This WiSci Girls STEAM Camp is the first time girls are exposed to this level of science, build robots, learn from NASA staff and see that they’re capable of learning things. Worlds open for them here.”

The camp recognizes that women are often underrepresented in the sciences—and fights to preempt inequality with access to education. “Google came to teach classes and girls had the opportunity to create their own mobile applications,” said counselor Monica Madulira of Lilongwe, Malawi. “Here girls have the chance to learn about STEAM before they even know they’re interested in it.”

Seventeen-year-old camper Necta Mwitory of Tanzania described her own transformation from quiet to curious over the course of the camp in a reflection that she wrote for Girl Up. “When our lessons started, I used to sit at the back and did not ask questions,” Mwitory recalled. Thanks to counselors who challenged her to take advantage of every moment of the short experience, Mwitory said that “when it was time to meet with the Google team, I sat in the front row.”

Likewise, counselor Lorna Marie Aine of Kampala, Uganda explains: “Girls are learning to build things with their own hands and those are the moments when they realize they can do things on their own. Girls in countries like the one I am from, Uganda, always heard of robots or mobile apps but think it’s hard because they never tried it, but now can do it on their own and that has changed their lives.”

And, naturally, girls are taking their knowledge home with them. “During our second week of camp, our group was introduced to the American Society of Microbiology. I learned how to make a simple microscope with the help of my smart phone camera,” wrote Mwitory. “The good thing is that they gave us the tools to make the microscope back home. Now I can’t wait to show that to my teachers and classmates in Tanzania.”

Though the primary goal of the camp may be to give girls a strong science education, it doesn’t hurt that the camp also emphasizes social impacts and cross-cultural learning. The WiSci Girls STEAM camp may emphasize the sciences, but it’s equally devoted to tackling social issues. In fact, that might explain why the camp uses the acronym STEAM—sciences, technology, engineering, art and mathematics—instead of STEM. Counselors and students alike are interested in applying the sciences to answer complex questions. “Girls look at their communities and try to incorporate STEAM to help solve some of the hardest issues like poverty, health resources, etcetera,” said Wood. This year’s camp asked campers to consider how technology might create a safer world, and gave girls the chance to learn about fighting food insecurity, natural disasters and other challenges with innovative technologies.

Zambian camper Harriet Tembo wrote in her reflection for Girl Up that the WiSci camp “has motivated me to think deeper of starting my own Girl Up Club in my community so that we can reduce poverty, illiteracy, early marriage, teen pregnancy and many more.” She also explained that she wants to “make sure that our investment to tackle the outbreaks of today will also […] strengthen our position in the fight against the outbreaks of tomorrow.”

In previous years, the camp has invited students from other countries–such as in 2016 when the Peru-based camp opened to students from Peru, Mexico and Chile. “[WiSci Girls STEAM Camp] is an international camp, drawing girls not only from the U.S., but Rwanda, Uganda, Liberia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia,” says counselor Simone Cowan of Atlanta, Georgia. “The camp has given me more of a global perspective on things, a greater sense of the world.” This emphasis on cross-cultural collaboration for social and scientific growth is helping campers and counselors envision solutions to global issues.

“[At camp, I have been] exposed to different global perspectives instead of just sitting in my international relations class,” Wood said. “[We] always talk about the challenges girls face around the world but when you finally get to meet them and learn how they overcome challenges—that knowledge has been the biggest thing that has changed me. I have so much hope and confidence in the future, whenever I feel stressed about gender inequality, at least I know one hundred girls who are in this fight.”

headshotCecilia Nowell is an immigration paralegal by day and a freelance journalist by night. She writes about political art and feminism, among other things, and her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Establishment and Argot Magazine. Find her on (her brand new) Twitter @cecilianowell.

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