On the first weekend in May, Jennifer Bartkowski walked on to the 92 acres of Camp Whispering Cedars south of downtown Dallas and looked at something she could not have imagined in childhood: a center dedicated to teaching science and technology to girls of all ages.
The STEM Center of Excellence debuted May 3 as a new Girl Scout camp featuring robotics, computer coding, botany, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines. STEM is an academic term for science, technology, engineering, and math.
“I don’t remember anyone ever encouraging me in science or math, and I was in upper, AP-type classes for science and math,” said Bartkowski, CEO of Girls Scouts of Northeast Texas.
“I went on to focus on what I loved, which was English and political science.”
It could have been a career in engineering, where she says only 14 percent of the people are women.
The numbers are worse in computer science and physics, she said.
Early exposure to technology and science can help. That’s the impetus behind the center, built with help from technology companies Ericsson and Texas Instruments. Universities such as UT Dallas, UT Arlington, SMU, and Texas A&M provide instructional materials and training for troop leaders and volunteers, and in the case of advanced workshops, instructors.
Girl Scouts from kindergarten through 12th grade can take advantage of activities including physics, digital media, engineering, astronomy, and topography.
“We want to increase their confidence, but we also want to change the way we talk about science technology and math with girls, because our research shows that girls are motivated by changing the world,” Bartkowski said.
“They can see how a teacher or doctor changes the world, but sometimes it’s hard for them to see how an engineer or a technology person changes the world.”
Last fall, a new line of badges was made available for STEM accomplishments and modern-day studies like cyber security, robot design, code writing, and mechanical engineering.
But Camp Whispering Cedars continues to embrace traditional Girl Scout activities. Swimming, hiking, and archery are still part of the experience.
A new ropes course features a three-person swing, a zip line, ropes bridge, and climbing wall.
The geology trail allows girls to explore fossils, learn about rock formations, and participate in soil testing.
“We still have an amphitheater because lots of girls tell me the first time they ever speak in public is on a Girl Scout stage,” Bartkowski said. “We still have the fire circle, because girls form a common friendship around a fire circle. And we still have a flagpole, because the traditions and elements of patriotism you learn in putting a flag up every morning and taking it down every night are critical components, even when you’re learning to code and do robotics.”