Releasing their inner engineers: UC summer campers return as Bearcats

Summer camp helps women of color find paths in STEM

The University of Cincinnati (UC) hosts the second annual Women of Color Summer Engineering Camp this month. While the 2021 campers learn about building strong foundations, nine former campers are getting ready to come to campus as incoming first-year students.   

Of the 27 participants in the camp’s pilot year, nine rising seniors attended. All nine have been accepted to UC starting this fall, and plan to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. Eight were accepted to programs in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.   

The first outreach experience of its kind to be offered by the university when it was launched by the college’s Office of Inclusive Excellence and Community Engagement in 2020, the free week-long camp for rising 9th through 12th graders helps students prepare and get excited for college, explore different types of engineering and envision their place in the world of engineering.  

“The Women of Color Summer Engineering Camp was created with young women and gender-diverse individuals in mind to create equitable educational programming that allows students to be exposed not only to engineering and applied science but individuals that looks like them and share an interest in STEM,” said Krizia Cabrera-Toro, Women in Engineering Program Coordinator. 

Studies show that earlier exposure to STEM for women of color increases participation and persistence in STEM education and activities in the future, particularly if they are aware of role models in the field that look like them. 

“The biggest goal was to expose students to women engineers of color. During the camp, the students met 15 women engineers of color. The beauty of the virtual camp is that we were able to invite speakers from across the country,” said Paula Lampley, Director of Women in Engineering for the college.  

By providing access to role models and fostering students’ understanding of and connections to engineering, the camp directly addresses multiple barriers to reducing the disparity of diversity and representation of women of color in STEM and promotes the success of diverse women in the science and engineering professions. 

Three incoming first-year students share their reflections about the camp: Cari’a Thacker, a Cincinnati Christian School graduate who will study mechanical engineering; Brooke Hunn, a St. Ursula Academy graduate who will study chemical engineering; and Fareena Khan, a William Mason High School graduate who will study computer science. 

What was a highlight of the camp for you? 

Thacker: I loved building a super tall tower to test on a shake table because it gave me the excuse to exercise my creativity. For an hour, I was allowed to search the house for materials that I thought would help me build the tallest tower. Not only was this activity up my alley, but it also challenged me to think way outside of the box. This activity allowed me to release my inner engineer. 

Hunn: My favorite part in the camp was being able to meet Dr. Rolanda Wilkerson, [co-creator of] the Pantene Gold Series. It was so nice to be able to see someone that like in the spot that I'm trying to go to. You know, it's not like I'm trying to break barriers now. There's somebody there that I can look up to and be like, "She can do it; why can't I?" (Hunn has been running a small hair care product business with her two sisters since January.) 

a teenage girl stands in a kitchen next to a tower that is taller than her, constructed out of plastic cups, cardboard, foam, and other recycled materials

Cari'a Thacker stands with the tower she constructed for the shake table design challenge. Photo/Provided.

How did it impact you to meet and learn from so many women of color who are engineers and scientists?

Khan: It was interesting to see how so many different types of women with completely different histories and experiences were able to connect, unite, and share interests over the same subjects. It was also more than inspiring in many aspects how hard work got them to amazing places regardless of their background.

Thacker: They each overcame their circumstances to become the amazing women they are today. All of these stories showed me that life is going to be hard, but you have to keep trying to reach your goals and have a good support team to hold you up when you don't have the strength.

How do you feel that the Women of Color Summer Engineering Camp empowers young women of color? 

Thacker: The Women of Color Summer Engineering Camp empowers young women of color to see that they can do anything they set their minds to. 

Hunn: It definitely empowered me to stay [on a path] in STEM because I know I'm not the only person doing it. I want to be able to inspire the younger generations to know that they can do it too. 

Khan: I feel that the Women of Color Summer Engineering Camp empowers young women of color to break barriers, close the gender gap, and destroy the stigma against women in STEM. 

a teenage girl sits, smiling and holding a container of hair product.

Fareena Khan poses with some of the products from Procter & Gamble that were included in the camp materials box delivered to students. Photo/Provided.

How did the camp affirm that UC and the College of Engineering and Applied Science is the place for you? 

Khan: UC was able to connect amazing women from all over the country, and through the camp I was able to see that the instructors really cared about us and for us. They created a genuine and positive culture for us and that is what attracted me to UC. I really got a good glimpse of what the people and environment at UC would be like. I already have a feel for campus culture and that’s a huge bonus. 

Thacker: The camp showed me the wonderful connections they had with companies and strong women in STEM. They have a wonderful engineering staff that has my success and dreams as their main goal. 

This year, even more students will get a chance to discover how to use their strengths and talents to make an impact. Coordinators saw a 35% increase in enrollment for the camp this year, which will run July 12-16, 2021. Sponsored by L3 Harris Technologies, Procter & Gamble, and Woolpert, the camp also offers an opportunity for industry partners to engage in community outreach. 

“We are proud to be able to create a safe space to talk about real issues faced by students of color, particularly women, and show our participants they too can be successful in engineering,” said Cabrera-Toro. “We empower, we support, we succeed—together.” 

Students of all gender identities and racial and ethnic backgrounds are welcome to apply for the Women of Color Summer Engineering Camp.  

Lampley, Cabrera-Toro, and Assistant Dean of Inclusive Excellence and Community Engagement Whitney Gaskins, PhD, authored a paper about the camp outcomes, which they will present later this month at the 2021 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference. 

We empower, we support, we succeed—together.

Learn more about support and programming for Women in Engineering and other pre-college opportunities offered through the College of Engineering and Applied Science Office of Inclusive Excellence and Community Engagement

Image featured at top: Aerial view of a forest. Photo/Aaron Burden/Unsplash.