Math camp for girls aims to narrow the gender gap

CLEMSON — A group of high school girls were at Clemson University last week to attend a new summer camp that aims to boost their math skills and give them a better shot at landing some of the nation’s fastest-growing jobs.

The inaugural offering of “We Do Math!” targeted girls who will be in ninth and 10th grades when fall semester starts.

Organizers hope to lay the foundation that females will need to close the gender gap in jobs that involve STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

“Math is the gatekeeper for all STEM careers,” said Serita Acker, the director of Clemson’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

“To boost confidence in this under-represented population, we need to present math as fun so that they can do other things. It’s all about building confidence. It’s all about preparation.”

While girls attended math classes in the mornings, the camp wasn’t all algebra and geometry.

The 25 campers programmed robots, built model cars and toured the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville.

They learned the math behind cryptosystems that protect information and QR codes that often are used in advertising to refer potential customers to websites.

A representative from the education company Kaplan held a session with the PSAT, the preparatory test for the SAT.

“We want to inspire the girls to study math, science and engineering by exposing them to exciting and relevant applications,” said Gretchen Matthews, a Clemson math professor who helped direct the camp. “A background in mathematics opens career opportunities in many of the most desirable occupations.”

Clemson students were in the WISE office on a recent morning to help prepare for camp. They were packing up notebooks, calculators and candy-filled water bottles.

Dana Sweatman, a junior from Charleston, said she hoped the camp showed young women that math is not for males only. She said math and physics are what she likes best about her major — mechanical engineering

“Everyone needs mechanical engineers,” Sweatman said. “It’s nice knowing when I graduate I’ll have a job.”

Women make up 27 percent of the engineering and science workforce, according to the National Science Board. They earn 18 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science.

A growing body of research is finding that the gender gap is a result of cultural influences.

“Girls are not necessarily lacking the skills and abilities to do math,” Acker said. “It’s the presentation. We say, ‘math is hard.’ Sometimes we internalize that.”

Campers worked with female graduate students, who served as role models. The camp agenda also included dance classes, a spa night and time to play games and watch movies.

The camp was made possible by the American Mathematical Society’s Epsilon Fund, the Engineering Information Foundation and the Mathematical Association of America, which receives funds through the Tensor Foundation.

Lakwasa Heath of Rock Hill was among the students packing up campers’ goodies in the WISE office. A junior majoring in industrial engineering, she said that while she has always done well in math, she knows that others struggle.

“It’s mostly male-dominated,” she said. “That’s why it’s important we have a support group to let us know it’s possible; to keep shooting for the stars.”