University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering


G.R.A.D.E. Camp Introduces Engineering to a New Generation of Girls


Melanie Ziems

It’s no secret women are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce showed only one in seven engineers are female. While STEM opportunities across the board increase annually, women have not seen employment growth in STEM careers since 2000.

It’s a monumental problem facing the U.S., but the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering is attacking it head-on with STEM outreach initiatives. One of these is G.R.A.D.E. Camp: Girls Reaching and Demonstrating Excellence. G.R.A.D.E. Camp is held every summer at the college for area girls entering the 8th through 12th grade in the fall. Campers are introduced to basic engineering concepts like robotics and electronics through hands-on experiments and team building exercises. The culmination of their experience is building a robot that follows a track through a maze, which they display on the last day of camp to an audience of family and friends.

This summer, the Cullen College is holding two G.R.A.D.E. Camp sessions. The first was held June 9-13, and the second will be held June 23-27. According to camp mentor and electrical engineering student Tori Speer-Manson, the more opportunities to reach out to girls in the community, the better.

“I want to be a role model for these girls,” Speer-Manson said. “It is important for them to get involved with STEM at this age, because the world is evolving to [need] these areas of expertise. As a woman in engineering, I see that the ratio of women to men is nowhere close to being equal.”

Speer-Manson has been working with the camp as a mentor under the direction of electrical and computer engineering professor Frank “Fritz” Claydon for three years. In her experience, she says that the magic of G.R.A.D.E. Camp lies in its ability to reach even the most uninterested camper.

“On the first morning of camp, most of the girls are excited and eager to learn about engineering, but there are always that select few that who aren’t showing very much enthusiasm because their parents signed them up without them knowing or they just don’t think they are interested in engineering. It is always great to see their attitudes toward engineering change throughout the week because they are actually having fun while learning,” she said.

In addition to hands-on experience with engineering experimentation, campers also attend lectures that introduce them to the basics of the industry and the different engineering disciplines, and they are able to meet female industry representatives at different events throughout the week. By incorporating fun, team-centered activities into highly real educational experiences, the camp is able to really reach girls on a level that makes them enthusiastic about engineering, and more importantly, their own futures.

To learn more about G.R.A.D.E. Camp, click here.