White. Affluent. Male.
Too often, these words are synonymous with success, even while they exclude millions of the brightest minds, especially within the technology industry. George Mason University is working to change that, one summer at a time, through week-long camps that expose underrepresented and at-risk girls to STEM fields.
Mason’s FOCUS Camp, or Females of Color and those Underrepresented in STEM, gives young women of color access to hands-on presentations and demonstrations centered on science, technology, engineering, and math.
Designed for rising 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, FOCUS is sponsored by the College of Science’s STEM Accelerator Program  in collaboration with Girls Inspired and Ready to Lead Inc. (GIRL).
Sessions cover topics such as biology, engineering, chemistry, geology, cybersecurity, design and innovation, forensic science, and more. Camp participants are taught to apply critical thinking methods to creative problem-solving activities. And a leadership and entrepreneurship component introduces them to successful women who work for leading organizations or run their own businesses, such as Patricia Braschayko, senior biostatistician at Battelle Corporation, who presented a session this summer, and meteorologist Veronica Johnson from WJLA, who visited in 2015.
How It Began
While in grad school at Mason, Danielle Blunt Craddock, MAIS ’11, saw a growing campus with new buildings, technology, and programs dedicated to student success, one of which was the STEM Accelerator Program. Craddock, who had already founded GIRL, a nonprofit for empowering teen girls, was approached by Mason math professor Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, a STEM Accelerator faculty member, about partnering with GIRL. When Craddock told him she’d like to host a summer camp for girls to prepare them for future success, the two teamed up with biology professor Claudette Davis and forensic science professor Kelly Knight, and launched the first camp in 2014.
“With his expertise in math education and work in preparing the next generation for STEM careers,” Craddock says, “he helped the four of us design a week-long program where the girls would have fun but develop critical skills needed to succeed in a 21st-century career.”
The camp served 18 girls that first year. Help from outside donors like the Business Women’s Giving Circle of the Community Foundation of Northern Virginia increased enrollment to more than 75 in 2015, and this year the camp reached its goal of 100 participants. Registration fees cover some costs, and funding received from primary sponsors—this year’s was Battelle—supports scholarships and expenses like food and supplies. VABio also donated $1,000 this year toward student scholarships.
“Without our sponsors, this camp would not be possible,” says Knight. “Additionally, STEM Accelerator funds from other outreach activities held during the year are used when necessary.”
Knight has taken the lead on organizing FOCUS, and the Mason Accelerator Program and GIRL run the camp together during the week. Camp counselors are all College of Science undergraduate students, and session speakers and presenters are made up mostly of Mason faculty. Knight says professors are eager to be involved, as they understand the challenges facing female STEM students, often because they once faced their own.
“My parents would take me to STEM activities as a child,” says Knight. “I was usually one of the only females of color. Had it not been for my parents and teachers encouraging me, I may have run away from STEM because I was ‘different.’”
Davis says she would have benefited from a FOCUS-type camp or afterschool program. “It would have taken the fear and uncertainties out of what to expect as an undergraduate and graduate student in STEM,” she says. “Many of our camp participants do not have the opportunity to participate in STEM activities throughout the school year. The interactive nature of FOCUS lets them see STEM can be fun and engaging.”
Who’s Taking Notice
The FOCUS Camp received the 2016 Programs that Work Award from the Virginia Mathematics and Science Coalition, which honors programs providing evidence of a positive impact on student learning from across the commonwealth in both rural and urban areas.
“Engaging the students in real-world problems and using concepts from STEM topics the girls have learned in school made the learning much more meaningful and powerful,” Seshaiyer says. He shared his enthusiasm for the camp when he served as a keynote speaker for a conference in Prague, Czech Republic, this past spring.
“The audience was really thrilled,” he says, “and wanted me to help start something similar there.”
Moms and dads praise it as well. Craddock, who says the highlight of this year’s camp was seeing many girls come back for a second and even third time, says, “One parent told me her daughter didn’t know what she wanted to do before she came to the camp two years ago, but after each year of attending, she has found a career she desires to pursue.”
Where It’s Heading
While scholarships are available to families who can’t afford the $200 camp fee, Davis believes the camp should one day be free for all. Knight says she hopes to extend it to two weeks, and to possibly make it residential. She’d also like to add camps for elementary and high school girls, and to someday include boys.
For now, though, the FOCUS Camp continues to bring together young girls, female counselors, and nearly all-female presenters.
“For a young girl, that can be a powerful experience,” Knight says. “It is especially empowering on the last day of camp when students gather for their final presentations and you see a room full of young girls discussing complex STEM topics with such excitement. It is really amazing to see.”
For more information, or if you would like to support the FOCUS Camp and opportunities to promote STEM education to underrepresented and at-risk youth, contact Kelly Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit fasterfarther.gmu.edu .