Waukegan summer camp for girls aims to inspire next generation of innovators

STEMgirls Summer Camp had theme of ‘New Frontiers in Space’

WAUKEGAN – Designed to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a weeklong camp in Waukegan challenged at least 100 grade school girls to survive on a “new planet.”

The campers from schools in Waukegan and North Chicago analyzed the simulated planet’s soil, hunted for existing life, found ways to secure and transport water, mapped the landscape and generated electricity from wind, among other activities.

“It was super cool,” said 13-year-old camper Kamryn Bowers of Waukegan. “I totally think we could go there [to a new planet] sometime in the future. It was cool seeing what scientists would think and how they would achieve experiments and try to get there.”

Themed “New Frontiers in Space,” the 2022 STEMgirls Summer Camp hosted last week by the Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization (iBIO) targeted third to eighth grade girls in Lake County. The event aimed to foster interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among grade school girls.

According to census data, men dominate the STEM workforce (73%) and experts say efforts to expand female interest in STEM are not working as well as intended.

“We’re not necessarily looking for girls who say, ‘Yes, I plan to be a scientist.’ We’re looking for girls who wouldn’t say that,” iBIO Senior Vice President Ann Vogel said. “They wouldn’t have what we call a STEM identity. They would not say, ‘I plan to go into a STEM career,’ but they have potential. We want to build their capacity for realizing their tremendous potential.”

Hosted at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Preparatory High School in Waukegan, the camp included field trips to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and the Garoon Gateway to Science Park in Lake Zurich.

Hosted since 2016, the camp returned to an in-person format this year after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. The past couple of years, the camp was hosted virtually with families challenged to do hands-on activities at home, Vogel said.

“We were so excited to be back in person this year,” she said.

Among the many challenges, Bowers enjoyed generating electricity from liquid seaweed and making it “fizzle.”

In her fourth year at the camp, she wants to be a marine biologist one day. A friend convinced her to attend the camp several years ago.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “I’ve always liked that it’s all girls. In STEM, it’s male-dominated. In this camp, you don’t really have to worry about competition, so that’s really cool. The science experiments are always so much fun. You get to learn a lot and work with different materials.”

Along with daily challenges, campers worked with about 30 volunteers from the local STEM community, including employees from the camp’s lead sponsor, Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories, and sponsor, Horizon. Along with the health care company, the Steans Family Foundation provided financial support for the camp.

Previous campers, now in high school, returned as role models and paid assistants at the camp, Vogel said.

“Our goal of the camp is to show girls role models, get them engaged in fun, hands-on, inquiry-based activities that they do together,” she said. “We improve their communication skills and provide them with an opportunity to make mistakes and learn that failure is really doing STEM.

“If you’re not failing, you’re not doing anything innovative. Mistakes and failures are just an opportunity to grow.”

The camp concluded with a family day in which family members were invited to view projects created throughout the week and listen to speakers. Campers also were sent home with hands-on STEM kits to complete with members of their families. The kits provided materials, written instructions in English and Spanish, links to an instructional video and profiles of women working in STEM.

“To inspire the next generation of innovators, it’s important to provide children with hands-on STEM experiences when they’re young so they’re encouraged to pursue related education and careers later in life,” said John Frels, vice president of core diagnostics research and development for Abbott. “Abbott is proud to partner with iBIO and STEMgirls for their annual camp to help energize and motivate future STEM leaders.”

Along with inspiring an interest in STEM, organizers of the camp aimed to build the confidence of campers and create a next generation of local STEM talent.

“Girls in particular, especially at this middle school and later elementary school age, they tend to not have the confidence to persist and persevere through what might be identified as a failure,” Vogel said.