As part of an effort to attract girls to traditionally male-dominated science fields, a group of 17 girls built rockets, studied microorganisms in creek water and learned to make ice cream with frozen nitrogen at a special summer camp in Arroyo Grande this week.
"My favorite part has been mostly making new friends," said Avery McCall, 10, on Wednesday after she and the group of elementary and middle school students spent a half-hour launching self-made rockets. "We've fixed phones that are old — I fixed a Gameboy, actually — and yesterday we looked at DNA."
Two years ago, Tosha Punches and Deborah Love noticed that the Lego robotics camps they held at the Exploration Station in Grover Beach were predominately filled with young boys eager to learn about robotics — but very few girls.
"We had only two girls who did the camp in its entire history," Punches said. "And we thought, 'We need to do something to reach out and get the girls here,' because the two who did it loved it. So that's when the whole 'Science for Girls' camp idea came out."
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Punches and Love prepared for the first session of the Science for Girls camp in 2014, but the Exploration Station's sudden closure in July put the sold-out camp in limbo. Instead of halting the camp, Punches said she and Love took it upon themselves to organize it, and reached out to local nonprofit organizations to see if anyone would be interested in funding the program.
Central Coast Salmon Enhancement — a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving natural resources through educational outreach — agreed to host the camp last summer, and with additional funding out of Punches and Love's pockets, it went on as planned.
This summer, the camp returned to the nonprofit’s facility near Paulding Middle School in Arroyo Grande with a new lineup of activities for the girls, all aimed at attracting them to science and technology fields.
"We wanted to give the girls a place where they will feel comfortable," Punches said. "We want to give them a really accessible, hands-on, exciting approach to all things STEM. They love science and math, and are excited about doing it, but for some reason females are not going into those fields, so we wanted to find a way to give them a lot of self-confidence and a place to not be intimidated or distracted."
On Wednesday, the girls were learning how to make and launch rockets, under the tutelage of Cal Poly aeronautics professor Dianne DeTurris.
DeTurris led the group through how to assemble a rocket with PVC pipe, cardstock, a one-liter soda bottle, flexible plastic tubing and duct tape. As the campers carefully put the pieces together, hands raised constantly asking questions about how a rocket would work, why they should put fins in certain areas and how high the rockets would go.
Emily Sullivan, 11, said she decorated her rocket in Gryffindor colors — red and gold — because she loves the Harry Potter series.
Soon it was time for launching, and the group trekked out to one of the middle school's nearby soccer fields to begin testing their rockets. After some practice, the rockets were soon shooting high into the air, to excited "oohs" and "aahs" from the group.
Loralei Dawson, 10, said Wednesday was her favorite day of camp so far because of the rockets.
"It went pretty high," she said with as grin as she showed off her pink, silver and zebra-print rocket.
She said the camp has made her enjoy science more than she did before.
After about a half-hour launching the rockets, the group assembled back inside, to shouts and proud exclamations of "Look mom, I made a rocket!"
That excitement is what Punches said she hopes all the girls will continue to feel towards the STEM field as they get older.
"We see that girls really want to do something that will make the world a better place, and we try to show them at camp that they can do that through science and technology," she said. "It's all about empowering them and allowing them to feel really confident so they continue in these fields."