Girl Scouts STEM Center of Excellence Blends Camping with Technology

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Girl Scouts traded in cookies and campfires for coding and robotics during the grand opening celebration of the STEM Center of Excellence at Camp Whispering Cedars in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, May 3.

Located in the heart of the 92-year-old campground, the STEM Center blends traditional Girl Scout campground activities with more modern, cutting-edge technological pursuits. Scouts can enjoy classics like archery, nature walks, and ropes courses, along with learning coding, robotics, engineering, and even astronomy. Jennifer Bartkowski, CEO of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, said the STEM Center aims to teach girls about science, technology, engineering, and math from every possible angle.

“Everything here is built on the Girl Scout leadership experience,” Bartkowski said. “When girls come here, they are learning leadership skills and developing confidence, comfort with risks, critical thinking, and problem solving skills. When they come onsite, they are doing underwater robotics, they’re doing the ropes course, and learning about physics, they’re doing engineering, they’re doing astronomy, they’re doing biomedical engineering, out on trails they’re learning about geology. Pretty much anything you can think of in science, technology, engineering and math can happen here, all in the context of leadership.”

Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, said the Girl Scouts have always had a strong connection to STEM, and this new facility will serve to further encourage and inspire young women to move into STEM careers.

“I am so passionate about STEM, but in Girl Scouts, we’ve had STEM since the very beginning,” Acevedo said. “In fact, some of our first badges were electricians’ badges and naturalists’ badges. Today, we’re carrying on that tradition, and it matters even more now as we transition from the industrial age to the age of data. We can have girls who are not just users of technology, but they are the ones who can create, can invent, and can design the future.”

The site’s unique blend of “camping meets technology” means no matter where the girls go, they will always be exposed to some facet of STEM. Kaleigh Beacham from Troop 92 in Dallas, Texas, said she loves how the center defies expectations of what a STEM facility should be.

“I think there’s so many initiatives to bring STEM to girls, but what’s unique about the STEM Center is it blends STEM with the traditional camp experience,” Beacham said. “I think that’s really important, because a lot of people have the idea STEM can only happen in a lab or a classroom, and we want to diversify what STEM looks like.”

According to a 2017 study from the US Department of Commerce, while women make up roughly 47 percent of the workforce, they only hold 24 percent of STEM jobs. In addition, while women held nearly as many undergraduate degrees as men, they made up only about 30 percent of all STEM degree holders, and women make up a disproportionately low share of degree holders in all STEM fields, particularly in engineering. Beacham is keenly aware of this and hopes to help change those statistics.

“There’s a persistent lack of women in STEM careers. We want to change that, because women can have just as important ideas, just as much creativity and drive as men in the same careers. We want to bring them the same spotlight,” Beacham said. “In reality, more people working toward a solution means we’re going to reach that solution faster.”

Brynna Boyd, Troop 4792 in Flower Mound, Texas, added that girls have near-limitless opportunities in STEM.

“I think it’s important for girls to get involved in STEM, because STEM is the future,” Boyd said. “There are so many opportunities in STEM, and girls need to know their opportunities are unlimited, and they have the same opportunities in STEM as everyone else.”

Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas’ Jennifer Bartkowski also hopes to see those statistics change.

“I always say you can’t tutor a girl into being an engineer,” Bartkowski said. “She needs the full comprehensive approach. Girls need confidence to stay in STEM, especially in a male-dominated world. They need to understand why STEM is important in the world. We know girls are really motivated by changing the world, and girls can see how a teacher or a doctor changes the world, but they don’t always see how an engineer changes the world, so we have to change the story.”