Anne Mayoral leads campers on a live Zoom tourAnne Mayoral, Girls in Engineering program director, leads campers on a live Zoom tour of American Steel Studios in Oakland, on Tuesday, July 14. (Photos by Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering)

Virtually engaging

During COVID-19, Girls in Engineering camp gets creative online

July 14, 2020 by Kirsten Mickelwait

Every summer, the UC Berkeley campus hosts more than 100 kids from across the Bay Area at its Girls in Engineering (GiE) camp, which provides equitable STEM education to middle school students. This year, COVID changed all that. As at most schools and summer camps across the country, GiE’s leadership scrambled to quickly reformat the program to an online experience. This new online camp gave GiE the chance to reimagine the camp curriculum and camper experience from the ground up so that they could create engaging and impactful hands-on experiences in an online format.

For the first time since its initial pilot phase, the GiE camp was offered free of charge to all participants. Free Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots were provided to students who didn’t already have a computer at home. And an additional week was added to the program. Instead of the usual one-week session enrollment, campers and their families have had access to all five weeks of camp for free.

GiE introduces kids to the different fields of engineering and design innovation, seeking out students who don’t normally have access to specialized STEM activities. Program staff were concerned that, with the added challenges of the COVID-imposed lock-down, they would lose their target demographic—those students who need it the most.

“Our decision to make the camp free stems from the fact that the families in our target demographic are the ones most severely impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, and removing this financial barrier ensures they’re able to participate,” said GiE program director Anne Mayoral. “In addition, many of these families are not equipped to access an online camp experience, so providing the tools and technology was critical for their participation.”

mechanical cardboard hand

A mechanical hand, built from cardboard, string, and tape, during an Invention Lab-led camp activity. (Photo courtesy Girls in Engineering)

Kits of camp supplies, videos, and other materials were also made available at no cost to the campers. In addition, more staff were required to run the online program. All of these resources were made possible by the Berkeley Engineering Fund and the generous sponsors, alumni, parents, friends and current students who have contributed to it.

“This camp is such an amazing gift to the community,” said Kristine Nube, mother of camper Camila Lucero Nube. “The whole thing has been so thoughtfully planned out, so much work went into interactive and unplugged activities. It’s been wonderful to see Camila Lucero this engaged and experiencing a bigger world.”

Normally, campers attend the camp on campus from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., receiving breakfast, lunch and snacks, as well as all supplies and materials. Mayoral was able to reallocate the program’s food budget to build individual supply kits for each day that were picked up by campers before the first day of the program. Included in the kits were such supplies as a notebook in which to record findings, a ruler, colored pencils, hanging scale, popsicle sticks, skewers, rubber bands, and masking tape. “You don’t need expensive materials to learn about engineering,” Mayoral said.

In all, 111 campers are attending the online camp, which runs from June 15 through July 17. The curriculum includes virtual tours of research labs, Q&As with researchers, outdoor experiences, and Fabulous Fridays, which focus on fabrication skills, prototyping, building and making.

Gumdrop toothpick structure

In a civil engineering module, campers built sturdy structures from gumdrops and toothpicks. (Photo courtesy Girls in Engineering)

“This year it’s been less about completing the activities and more about trying to create an online learning environment that can support engagement,” Mayoral said. “Every day our goal is to infuse the campers with a little more confidence and a little more love of STEM learning; to pique their curiosity just enough that they’ll want to take it to the next step.”

According to Mayoral, 10% to 15% of campers are carrying some of the family load at home due to the quarantine. “We understand that they may not be able to be fully present,” she said. “We want to support them in the best way we can, so that these underrepresented students can succeed.”

“I would give the camp ten stars,” said Camila Lucero Nube, 11. “Before camp I loved science, especially the human body. I was also interested in computers but wasn’t sure what engineers did or if it was for me. But I really loved our CITRIS lab tour and the 3D printers and everything they made. It’s definitely something I could see myself doing!”

Girls in Engineering is generously supported by the Micron Foundation, the Murray Slater Foundation and the National Science Foundation.