A Geek Girl camper running on non-Newtonian fluid, trying not to sink. All photos courtesy of FFL

The FFL Geek Girl Camp (GGC) was a big idea that sat in a binder at the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) in Fayetteville, NY, for a while before we were able to find the time to make it happen. We decided that the perfection time to launch the pilot program was with Summer Reading 2014. We understood the challenges for STEM programming for girls, which include a lack of clear, early pathways for girls in STEM fields and also a lack of access to female role models in STEM.

Geek Girl Camp’s logo.

However, we also understood our community of Fayetteville would embrace the opportunity to influence young girls early by sparking an interest in learning more about and pursuing STEM. There was a lot of discussion on who the target audience should be for GGC, and it was decided that for the pilot, we would target girls entering grades 3−5. Other STEM camps for girls in our area exist, but for girls in middle and high school. Furthermore, we found that across the country, there was little opportunity for this grades 3−5 age group, and access was limited due to lack of affordability.

By engaging this age group, through hands-on activities, we wanted to show how fun math and science can actually be when applied in the real world. It was important for the FFL to also connect these young learners with women currently working in STEM, and the level of excitement and interest displayed by the 44 future STEM leaders who’d attended this camp drove home how essential this step into STEM learning was in the FFL’s ever-evolving programming mission.

Why the library?

Why have STEM camps for girls at the library and not at a university, museum, or science center? The answer is easy. The library is the trusted center of our community bringing people together to share and create new ideas. Also, STEM and making are both already part of our mission at FFL. We include STEM and making budget lines in our operating budget, and much of our children’s and teen programming has a root in introducing children to STEM, including our Creation Club, a STEM  club for kids, and Little Makers, a program for 5−8 year olds, where they read a picture book and do a maker activity that goes along with the book.

Teaching campers aerodynamics before heading outside to shoot our rockets into the sky.

It goes without saying that we also have a forward-thinking staff at FFL, who could produce and lead a STEM camp. Being a library also gives us the ability to offer a camp of this quality for $25, which provides a t-shirt, a healthy snack, and covers the cost for camp materials, including 200 lbs. of cornstarch, dry ice, and the rental of a cement mixer. (For those in our community who could not afford the cost, we offered four scholarship opportunities.)

We ran the first GGC with a budget of $1,075. One camper was awarded a scholarship. Each participant had to fill out an application, which included a description of the camp, parental contact information, allergies, t-shirt size, and special needs. The application also included a photo release form and pick up permission form.

In a matter of weeks, the camp was full. Forty four girls were selected with 12 girls on the waiting list. (View a copy of our application here.)

Planning and preparation

Ultimately, the pilot took two months to plan out. After the pilot was reviewed and approved by Sue Considine, our executive director, a small group of staff was selected to work together to plan the pilot. The planning team included the library’s director of play-to-learn services, the director of community engagement and experience, the director of innovative family services, the library’s public relations assistant, and me. We planned the events and assigned tasks in detail. As the planning developed, we shared and developed the program further during our monthly staff meeting, where colleagues provided their feedback and suggestion.

Testing out how big we could make our human circuit using a MaKey MaKey kit.

As we planned and prepped, we compiled our ideas—found on the Internet and from our own experiences—into a single document. During this stage, our GGC girls were placed into groups, 11 girls assigned to each group leader, by age, and color-coded groups for easy tracking. Each group had nametags and corresponding colors to match their pencils and notebooks, plus one iPad per group for capturing video and photos.

A very important aspect of our GGC was to bring in local and national role models for the girls to meet—either in person or virtually—by using video conferencing software. Finding women to participate in the camp was not a hard task. We combed through our own personal contacts, local tech meet up events, and LinkedIn and found nine women who served as STEM role models ranging from academics from universities, including Cornell, to Girls in Tech to Facebook to the U.S. military. And with funds from our budget we were able to reimburse our speakers for their travel.

How it went

On the first day of GGC, girls were broken into groups. Initially, they were pretty shy, but by the next day, friendships were blooming everywhere. At the beginning of the week, we asked each girl what they wanted to be when she grows up. Many responded they wanted to be teachers, actresses, and singers—but by the end of the five-day week, we asked the same question again and got answers that included: computer scientist, pilot, physicist, and more. Their answers proved that we accomplished our goal of introducing girls to STEM in an effective way, boosting their confidence and level of interest for, hopefully, the rest of their lives.

You can find a detailed account of what we did each day of camp, along with instructions for most of the activities (including a donated trebuchet used to launch water balloons and renting a cement mixer to make a kiddie pool filled with oobleck) on our GGC website.

What’s next?

The FFL GGC pilot went above and beyond our expectations.

Lieutenant Major Sonya Finch teaching campers how to talk over the actual radio pilots use with the military alphabet.

“…we created an environment where all the girls in the room felt like the more they got into math and science and technology and engineering, the more fun they were having,” says Leah Kraus, FFL’s director of community engagement and experience.

A formal assessment of the program was completed with both our executive director and the all-staff team. Based on our findings, we will continue to offer this opportunity for members of our community and plan to host a Geek Girl Day on February 16. Also, we plan to continue to pursue this model in both regular and summer reading programming for both genders and multiple age groups. Libraries everywhere are more than capable of offering STEM programs for their patrons.

points to consider WHEN creatING STEM programming

Rethink your budgets. One magician can cost the same price as a LEGO Robotics kit.

We all serve youth, so get everyone on staff involved in your planning process: the children’s librarians should not be the only staff members running this program.

Look to local organizations and your community for donations of resources and experts.

Relentlessly innovate, be brave, and take risks.

Please check out the FFL’s website with more details on the day to day activities at FFL Geek Girl camp here: www.fflib.org/geekgirlcamp . And email me mlevine@fflib.org with any additional questions or comments—or for encouragement.

Meredith Levine is the director of family engagement at the Fayetteville Free Library in Fayetteville, NY. Email her at mlevine@fflib.org or call (315) 637-6374 x330.

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