It turns out kids aren’t the only ones who have something to learn from summer day camp. Please sit back and get comfortable so that I can throw myself under the bus for your reading pleasure. This is a story about the schooling I received after signing my daughter up for Virtual Ventures, a day camp aimed at engaging kids in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) this summer.
I must confess that I have strong negative emotions towards STEM related activities, especially computers. Sadly, when I hear the word math, an invisible grey wall goes up in front of my eyes. Like most things that displease me, my feelings are based on fear and a lack of understanding.
Computer literacy was not required for success during my academic journey. Sure we had an Apple IIe at home in the 1980s but it was really just a trendy piece of furniture, good for games like The Oregon Trail. Later, I was so tuned out in my high school computer class that my teacher, Mrs. Clay, called my parents, concerned that I was on drugs.
The Internet was not a part of my university experience. Doing research entailed filling my backpack with quarters and hiking up the hill to Weldon Library. There I would photocopy and whirl reels of microfiche until my bag was full. When it was time to type I used my Canon Starwriter and later a simple laptop. My first jobs required computers but there was always the blessed IT guy to bail me out when things got ugly. Eleven years ago I went off on maternity leave, sealing my fate as a Luddite.
To be fair, I can manage daily interactions with technology quite well, as long as things are working and my husband is in screaming distance. I treat my phone and desktop like small bombs that will implode and destroy everything I care about if I hit the wrong key. The printer and I hate each other and I make a magic wish every time I try to use two remotes at once.
Unfortunately for my children, my ancient views have been pushed on to them. Every time they squeak out the words “computer” or “screen time” I respond with rants about childhood obesity, type-two diabetes, sunshine and the power of a good book.
My neighbor Jennifer Flanagan has acted like the canary in the coal mine regarding my disdain for computers since we moved in. Jennifer is the CEO of Actua, a national charity with a twenty-year track record of success in providing hands-on, interactive education enrichment experiences in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) to Canadian youth aged 6 to 16 years. Most Friday nights, Jennifer and I sip wine on the back deck. She passionately lectures me on the importance of ensuring quality access to digital literacy and STEM for kids, especially girls. Her excitement grows when describing amazing STEM camps that Actua supports, like Virtual Ventures in Ottawa, and others like it across Canada. I sip my wine, nod and think, how lovely for those other children. I think I always just figured that my girls would choose what they were interested in and run their futures accordingly. After all, I had defied the poster “50 Careers You Cannot Do Without Math” in the early nineties.
Even at the inception of summer 2015, my husband and I still believed somehow that a strong tennis game combined with manners and good marks were the perfect blend for success.
So, in keeping with my 80s views, I signed the kids for tennis camp. And then my seven year-old injured her leg. Desperate for a camp that would keep her on the same campus as her tennis-playing siblings, I signed Lola up for Virtual Ventures. Jennifer’s response was lacking in pride, “You signed up your daughter for a computer engineering camp solely because she is struggling with a mobility issue!” This outburst was followed by some hysterical laughter and a deafening groan.
On Monday I dropped two kiddos off at the tennis bubble and the one on crutches at the engineering building. I watched as Lola was led off by Luke, her very sweet looking Virtual Ventures counselor, and wondered how this was going to go. By Tuesday drop-off was seamless and on Wednesday she whispered, “No offense to the other camps Mommy but this is been my favorite one ever.” On Friday, the last day, parents were invited to an Open House. Upon entering the computer lab I could feel my attention span starting to threaten a walkout. Luckily I was quickly distracted as my youngest proudly walked me through her personal website, recently designed video game and ability to navigate Photoshop. Then she led me from the computer to show me the roller coaster her group had made from simple tubing, a workable helicopter, boat and pinball machine all constructed from simple materials. Her favorite activity of the week was an experiment involving coating a pill so that its dissolution could be timed in accordance with its arrival to the human stomach. I had no idea that these types of activities would be part of camp and could never have anticipated how much they would delight her.
Convinced I had now wrecked my daughters’ lives and futures, again, by denying them these experiences until now, I asked Lola’s very impressive female counselor, Uty Akpan, a current third year engineering avionics student, how she wound up in engineering. She told me that as a child she loved to take things apart but would get in trouble because she couldn't fix them again. Uty’s inspiration was a high school teacher who told her that if she wanted to fix things properly she should go into engineering.
Moving on to the auditorium, we were next introduced to Hannah Johnston, a former Virtual Ventures camper and staff member, who now works at Google as an Interaction Designer. Like Jennifer, Hannah was clear that female representation in STEM related fields is key: “Everyone should feel that they can pursue the field in which they're interested, in a fair and inclusive environment. The diversity of that talent in computer science is also important when we are creating solutions for the rest of the world. Different backgrounds and experiences help ensure that we're not ignoring huge chunks of the market.”
For Hannah, early hands-on exposure to computers gave her confidence. “My dad is an engineer and brought home a computer for us to play with. We were among the first of my friends to get the Internet. My parents trusted us with these things and let us do whatever weird projects we had in mind, which was kind of a big deal. My parents were always really positive about us doing things that had some sort of productive component. We got a lot of brainy kits and games as gifts.”
Listening to Hannah speak, I began to panic. I decided that I needed to reach out to Hannah’s mom Willie, to figure out how she had helped to create this confident, inspiring, female scientist. Willie, a teacher, told me she loved having fun with Hannah and her sister, who also works at Google, but also looked for ways to bolster their play. “We would bake and that was a chemistry lesson. I covered the basement walls with paper and let their creativity flow. Together we would build furniture from cardboard and make a mess. But they always had to clean up. They knew me as the house carpenter.“ When it came to extracurricular activities, Willie let the girls choose, believing strongly that enthusiasm would take them far.
On Saturday morning, following the Open House, I woke up mentally exhausted but determined to make meaning and use from all the lessons I had collected. I felt like I had been given a gift with the responsibility to do something with it. It was finally clear to me that computer education is a must for our future adults. My “week at camp” taught me that no man or woman of the near future will be able to practice medicine, teach or work his or her coffee maker without digital skills. Jennifer emphatically agrees. “It isn't just about churning out more scientists and engineers or computer scientists, it is because we know that all future careers will depend on having confidence and basic literacy in these areas. We also know that girls are at major risk being of left behind.”
Perhaps my favorite Virtual Ventures related epiphany was the idea of hands-on discovery being key to STEM related achievement. I thought of the freedom young women like Uty and Hannah were given to tinker, build, break and try. That someone had placed enough confidence in them, regardless of gender, to let them make messes, mistakes and problem solve. Sadly, Jennifer relates, these priceless yet inexpensive opportunities are not the norm, “Girls often come into our programs with very different experiences than boys. Boys are far more likely to have tinkered around with their dads, uncles or grandpas watching them fix things or take things apart. This applies to computer science in a big way. Boys will push all the buttons until they figure it out while girls will be nervous to break it or will wait for detailed instructions. We want to equalize that playing field by giving girls the safe space to explore, to fail smart and to think critically and creatively. The research overwhelmingly supports this lack of tinkering experience for girls in their home environments and cites it as a strong reason for their lack of uptake in STEM.”
These findings certainly resonate in my house when I reflect on how my son approaches technology. He will push every button in the car or on his phone to see what will happen while I crouch in terror. When I wanted an Instagram account he kept hitting buttons until it was set up. Sometimes he makes mistakes but the worst thing that has happened was the installation of a Tim Horton’s Emoji keyboard, which wasn’t so bad.
Jennifer wants this kind of freedom and confidence instilled in all children, especially our daughters, “Actua’s programs create opportunities for kids to explore, to problem solve and to fail. We need kids to have a better understanding and appreciation for failure and the role failure plays in all great innovations. We are all taught, especially girls, to avoid failure when it is the very thing that propels all great ideas and inventions.”
To me, the benefits of hands-on independent problem solving and rising from failure to try a new approach extend well beyond the sciences. I want my kids to learn these skills so that they have the confidence to change a tire, end a bad relationship or embark on a journey knowing that they have it within them to persevere.
It may be too late for me to get ahead of my kids technologically but I will continue to follow Willie’s lessons of creativity, choice and providing the freedom to tinker. Luckily Actua and Google are aware of my demographic are compensating for my shortcomings. Together they have commenced a new program called Codemakers which aims to bring a positive computer science experience to 100,000 Canadian kids over the next three years. Google also supports employees, like Hannah, in their goal of providing positive, inspiring role models for youth and girls. She certainly inspired me!
Last week, driving to the grocery store, Lola said something that now has exceptional value to me, “Mummy, I love using buttons, levers and switches. It is fun because all of them do different things and make different noises.” The new me wasn’t even concerned about what she must have dismantled in the creation of this mindset. But I will make Jennifer fix it.