SPICE Camp gives girls a passionate environment to explore science

SPICE Camp participant at her automata

It may have been a low-key summer Friday morning elsewhere on the UO campus, but that was definitely not the case in Willamette Hall 240.

Seven incoming high school freshman girls were in a mad dash to put the finishing touches on their high-tech dioramas – a combination of computers, small motors, and arts and crafts.

Miniature sculptures twirled, whales bobbed up and down, a merry-go-round of candy spun as the girls tested their projects – called automatas – one last time before that day’s presentations.

Their projects may appear whimsical, but to build them the girls learned how to write computer code to make a small computer tell equally small motors to spin at just the right speed, then connect gears and rods that brought their automatas to life.

This is SPICE Camp – the Science Program to Inspire Creativity and Excellence – a fun summer camp for girls entering sixth through ninth grades that fosters their passion for science as much as it teaches them about it. The big-picture goal is to stoke their interest enough that they’ll identify themselves as scientists or at least embrace the discipline rather than hesitate when they encounter it.

And they do it in an environment surrounded by female role models: from SPICE Director Brandy Todd down through the instructors and helpers, aka “junior minions.”

“The goal is that they come out of the camp feeling that when someone says, ‘We’re going to do this science thing,’ their ears perk up and they go ‘Oh, I like science. I want to do that science thing,’ so they have these positive associations and confidence in their ability,” Todd said. “Ability is not the problem. It’s how your environment is helping build your confidence and motivation.”

Early returns show Todd’s work is effective, as the visits from current Ducks who are SPICE alums can attest.

Todd designs the camp around the middle school years, a time when girls are figuring out what their passions are, and when science may not be on top of their minds. It’s also when they are most likely to start receiving cues that may push them away from the subject.

“This camp is a space full of girls who are all here, nerding out, enjoying science, and in a way that is consistent with theory around how you build motivation,” Todd said. “We want them to transition from where it’s cool if someone puts science in front of you to the point where you are seeking it out on your own.”

Depending on their age, girls attend camps where they learn to gather data via Science Discovery Camp, to a Whodunit? Forensics Investigation camp, to Build It! Maker Camp.

The Maker Camp was Natalie Paskett’s third SPICE camp. She was finished with her automata, and now was fine-tuning her e-textile: a hat with blinking lights that she programmed to blink in a certain pattern.

“All three are different from each other,” the rising eighth-grader at Thurston Middle School said of the camps. “You get a lot of different experiences, but they’re similar because you learn a lot from each one.”

For Lana Hansen, the automata was fun, but she really connected with some of the other aspects of the camp.

“I enjoyed the side projects we did: making a boat out of tape, making marshmallow towers with spaghetti,” said Hansen, who will enter ninth grade at North Eugene High School this fall.

Hansen also liked a trip to a local arcade where the camp got to see the innards of a pinball machine and how it worked, and, she added, having other females around made her feel more comfortable learning science.

Having role models who in some cases may only be a couple years older than them helps make the idea of being a scientist that much more attainable, Todd said. Graduates of the camp who are too old to take part can serve as “junior minions,” as helpers who work their way into leadership roles. Meanwhile, the young girls also see UO undergraduates from the sciences and College of Education run the activities.

Todd has research data that illustrate that her efforts have been successful. Surveys show campers who come in with an interest in science leave with an even greater affinity for it than when they started. Many attendees of the first camps are just now graduating college, and Todd will soon have a larger pool of alumni to survey as more alumni make their way through high school.

She has anecdotal evidence as well, with SPICE grads who are students at the UO stopping by her office to say hi, including some who have graduated with degrees in one of the STEM fields; and others asking for college letters of recommendation.

She recalls one 9-year-old girl who was too young to attend the camp but who Todd allowed to tag along with her older sister. Todd thought that the young girl was doodling in a notebook throughout a class when in fact she was taking exhaustive notes. The girl is now an instructor in SPICE’s Maker Camp.

Todd, along with Miriam Deutsch, helped launch the predecessor to SPICE in 2008 after Hailin Wang, then-director of the Oregon Center for Optical Molecular and Quantum Science, saw it as a great tool for community outreach. They had 15 campers that first year – eight girls and seven boys. The following year, Todd limited it to girls, and demand has soared. She expanded the hours and length of the camp, then added a second session.

Now 120 campers take part each year. A grant from the Division of Equity and Inclusion helped spread the word in the early going. A generous gift from local resident Rosaria Haugland has kept the camp afloat. Ongoing support from Oregon Center for Optical Molecular and Quantum Science has also freed up Todd and two colleagues to run it each year.

She added an open house in the fall (Oct. 2) and a science fair each spring that is open to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Now Todd is working to secure funding that would allow her and two colleagues to work full-time on SPICE.

The Maker Camp was Natasha Dracobly’s first SPICE camp. She’ll be a ninth-grader at South Eugene High School in the fall, and even though she’s had a stronger interest in writing and the humanities, she’s developed a curiosity about science lately.

“It’s interesting to be in more of an atmosphere of science that’s not centered around guys,” she said. “It can be really inspiring, especially to younger groups of campers. Our perception of science does center on guys and what they have done. When you think about the history of science, we don’t talk much about women’s achievements. This camp’s also about showing women that they can do it. It’s not just a bunch of girls in a camp together. You get to do your thing.”

—Jim Murez, University Communications