Sacramento summer tech camps for girls aim to close the STEM gender gap

Emily Schweim opened up Photoshop on her laptop computer and changed the colors and textures of a single square on her screen. Using different programs, the 10-year-old went on to build a wizard-themed map incorporating the square as well as a story to go with the video game Minecraft.

“I like to add aesthetic touches to my map,” the girl said. “A good story and a poor map is meh. But a really good-looking map is better.”

Some of Schweim’s friends call Minecraft “a boys game,” but Schweim and the other girls at the iD Tech summer camp held at California State University, Sacramento, are designing their own video game worlds, 3-D printed creations, apps, websites and Javascript programs.

Between 2013 and 2015, iD Tech saw a 205 percent jump in girls nationwide who attended the coed summer coding camp, defying social stereotypes that paint science and tech as a boy’s game, said iD Tech vice president of strategic partnerships, Karen Thurm Safran.

“Girls and boys look at the world differently,” Safran said. “Having more women in these fields makes us look at the world in a more well-rounded way. It brings more diverse results from the workforce.”

Several Sacramento area summer coding camps are working around the same idea. On Monday, the Sacramento Powerhouse Science Center plans to hold its first all-girls summer camp in collaboration with the UC Davis Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education, or C-STEM. The program invites 20 girls from underrepresented communities around the area to learn coding skills.

C-STEM has its own all-girl camp at UC Davis called Girls in Robotics Leadership.

Those and other programs around the country are trying to bring more diversity to science, tech, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, which remain largely male-dominated.

Women accounted for 57 percent of the total U.S. workforce in 2015, but only about 25 percent of them were in computing occupations, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise the number of women in computing and technology.

The advocacy group the National Girls Collaborative Project found that women make up just 29 percent of the country’s science and engineering workforce while comprising about half of all workers with a college education. White House figures show that women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM fields.

Powerhouse marketing and development director Shahnaz Van Deventer said the issue is not just about equality. If enough women don’t enter STEM fields, the country will see a shortage of candidates needed to fill the growing number of tech positions being produced by the economy, she said.

By 2024, the country will have 1.1 million computing-related job openings, with almost two-thirds of them going unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates with relevant bachelor degrees, the center found.

One major reason why women are less represented in STEM careers is the social expectations young girls face when following their academic interests — a problem that tech training camps are trying to counter, said C-STEM director Harry Cheng.

“The stereotype is that people think it’s not a field for girls,” he said. “When women are exposed to these technology career opportunities, they find the environment so challenging that it turns them off. We need to give women not only access, but also success.”

Van Deventer said coding summer camps tailored for girls help inspire kids early on, when such attitudes about work and social roles are just forming. She said Powerhouse plans to offer tech camps with UC Davis for several more summers and eventually create its own program.

“Data show that kids are inspired in informal situations,” she said. “It’s when they’re getting their hands on something, see something ... when they’re able to open an iPhone or playfully code something. It’s not when they open a textbook.”

Ada Liu, a third-year mechanical engineering student at UC Davis, agrees that lack of access to hands-on technology experience is the bigger problem. Sitting in math and science classes just doesn’t give girls a concrete feel for how to work in the real world, she said.

Liu nurtured her interest in mechanical engineering after participating in a robotics competition sponsored by NASA and the Girl Scouts. She’s now a coach for a C-STEM summer camp in Woodland and UC Davis that follows the same model as the Powerhouse Science Center camp.

“If I hadn’t been part of the robotics team, I wouldn’t have known it was something for me or that it was something I’d want to pursue,” Liu said.

Alexa Cafe, iD Tech’s all-girls camp, re-creates the kind of open offices typical in the tech industry, with high top tables, bean bags and room for the girls to walk around with their laptops, said iD Tech hiring manager Libbie Bronzan.

Bronzan, who also oversees four Alexa Cafes in the Bay Area, said instructors ask girls to choose a social cause and address it with a tech project, rather than simply assign them a task they may not be interested in. The girls are also trained in how to make a 30-second pitch for their project, she said.

Some all-girls tech programs invite female speakers from the STEM industries to act as role models, Cheng said.

At this summer’s Sacramento State iD Tech camp, girls made up a quarter of the 40 kids in the room. iD Tech is working toward achieving a 50-50 female-to-male ratio in all of its camps, Safran said.

Despite being outnumbered, most of the girls at the Alexa Cafe showed no lack of confidence among all the boys around them. Edie Blanke, for one, demonstrated her skills with Photoshop by coloring Justin Bieber’s face green as part of a website filled with funny photos and videos.

To the 9-year-old, her experience at the camp was all about learning and creating something that she could call her own.

When asked about the lack of girls in the room, Edie nodded without taking her eyes off the screen. “It doesn’t really matter,” she said.

Alejandra Reyes-Velarde: 916-321-1005