Jasmine Maya wasn't sure what she was getting into when she signed up for the Reality BOOST! summer camp at Ochoa Middle School In Pasco, Washington, but the idea of playing with computers for a week intrigued her. What she gained was an introduction to the field of augmented reality and the way technology is changing how designers and engineers are approaching fashion, construction, and other careers in the digital age.
“It was challenging because you would have to read some instructions on this paper and it would sometimes be in computer language,” Jasmine says about the computer program she used to build a 3-D model of a high school library, adding solar panels and trees to make it more energy-efficient.
The experience sparked an interest in technology for Jasmine. It also gave her a newfound confidence in her technology literacy class that fall when classmates were trying to make sense of the same program.
“I was like a master at it,” she laughs. “They were all asking me, ‘How do you do this?’”
Girls and young women often say they are not interested in science, engineering, and other STEM fields, even when they excel in math. And even though women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce, they hold only a quarter of the jobs in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In particular, women of color are underrepresented in STEM.
Programs like Reality BOOST! are meeting the challenge of attracting more Latino and African-American girls to technology fields and showing them that they can be successful in high-tech careers. In fact, three-fourths of the camp participants said in a survey that they wanted to take more technology classes and work in fields that use technology.
The Reality BOOST! camp was created by The EdLab Group, an education nonprofit that focuses on increasing equity and the use of technology in STEM education through a range of innovative projects and programs in Washington and around the globe. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory opened its doors for one of the camps and resident scientists served as role models to illustrate STEM in action. The project was supported by a $23,000 grant from Washington STEM and serves as a model for how to create more enthusiasm for STEM careers among girls of color. The camp also brought STEM to life beyond the classroom during the summer months. Currently, less than a fifth of U.S. students participate in STEM-related activities outside of the regular school day.*
Not only did the program provide some of the girls from the high-needs, predominantly Hispanic middle school their first chance to attend summer camp, it also introduced them to some of the most cutting-edge applications of technology in the field.
Augmented reality is a blend of physical reality and digital information. Most people have encountered these advancements in the form of “quick response” barcodes that are scanned with a cell phone and link to a product’s website.
The girls experimented with this technology to create virtual “pop-up” books with twists on classic fairy tales and themes such as friendship and overcoming bullying.
“We wanted to make sure we were giving the girls basic digital literacy skills,” says Laura Enman, program manager at The EdLab Group. At the same time, these girls are growing up as “digital natives” and are likely familiar with many of the latest gadgets and technologies. She added that the projects were chosen not just for their high-tech appeal, but also because they focused on issues or topics that the girls would care about, such improving a site in their community with earth-friendly building materials.
Two teachers from Ochoa Middle—a P.E. and a math teacher—taught the program, with support from the EdLab Group staff members who developed the curriculum and provided professional development.
The culminating activity was a digital “fashion show,” attended by family members, in which the girls walked down a runway while the sketches of outfits they had designed were projected on a screen behind them.
Another essential element in the success of the program was the teachers’ willingness to learn with their students. “They had to be comfortable with not being the expert,” Laura Enman says. It’s clear, however, that the teachers were able to tap into interests that the girls didn’t even know they had.
“Before, I wanted to be an actor,” says Jasmine, who is now a 9th grader. “After the program, I wanted to be a technology-scientist kind of person.”