DIY Girls: Building Tech Skills at Summer Camp

Summer is in full swing and most children are enjoying the lazy days of their break. Many are spending their days playing at summer camp and making friends. Others are learning and exploring new ideas in summer school classes. At a small elementary school in East San Fernando Valley, a group of young girls are doing both and loving it.

DIY Girls, a non-profit that offers girls and women introductions and support in technical fields, is hosting a free summer camp at Vaughn Elementary in Pacoima that provides an opportunity for girls to cultivate their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), while promoting their self-confidence.

Founder Luz Rivas knows first-hand the benefits that girls can receive from an early introduction to STEM curriculum. Rivas began DIY Girls after growing up in the East San Fernando Valley herself. She developed an early interest in computers that eventually led to attending MIT. Now, she is offering the introduction to young girls from her community in order to give them a foundation to participate in the emerging maker economy.

While DIY Girls has been running an after school program out of nearby Telfair Elementary for about a year, this is the first year that summer camps have been held, and are offered for free to the girls in the community. Rivas hopes to expand both the summer and after school programs to eventually reach other parts of the San Fernando Valley.

Luz Rivas stands in the auditorium of Vaughn Elementary where DIY Girls holds summer camps

At a previous week of camp the girls created DIY City out of recycled electronics.

During the five weeks of camp the girls meet at Vaughn Elementary, where a different topic is explored at each week-long session: robots, recycled electronics, fashion and wearable technology, toy design and hacking, and computer coding. Girls have the option of choosing the sessions that interest them, but most attend the camp for all five weeks.

Last week the girls explored fashion and wearable technology. Wearable tech is an emerging industry that interweaves functional and aesthetic technology into everyday life, from sunglasses to shirts and everything in between. Rivas said that fashion tech week has been the most popular, with about 30 girls signing up.

The auditorium at Vaughn is standard and unassuming, completely at odds with the unusual and creative projects the girls are working on inside. The large space was lined with tables, girls sitting on one end of the room and supplies stacked on the other. A mixture of high tech and low tech supplies are available to the girls: sheets of scrap fabric, yarn, needles and thread as well as LED lights, conductive thread, and microchips.

"I believe in hands-on learning," Rivas said. "I like telling them that they're learning something that even adults don't really know how to do."

The first day of camp was dedicated to making purses -- something most middle school girls would enjoy, but at DIY Girls camp, these were not ordinary purses. Before they had a chance to go pick out their fabric and thread, they had a lesson on how an electronic switch worked, allowing them to attach an LED light that would turn on and off.

Eileen shows off her gloves that light up when put together

Vanessa Acuña sews her purse on Day 1 of Fashion and Wearable Technology Week at DIY Girls Summer Camp

Doris and Vanessa Acuña loved the first day of wearable tech camp so much that they asked their mother to pick them up after 4 PM, when the camp ended, so they would have more time to work on their creations. The sisters began attending the camps over the summer as a way to keep them occupied over the break, but now they look forward to attending every day.

Vanessa spent the majority of the first day sewing the fabric of her purse. When it was time to leave she had not even begun the technology aspect of the project. She wasn't worried, however; most girls finished their purses on the second or third day of camp. Rivas says that, typically, the girls will spend most of their time designing at the beginning of camp. As the week goes on, the technology becomes more accessible and interesting to them.

"I like fashion but I really like science," Vanessa said. "But not reading my book. I like the experiments."

Posters like this one remind the girls of DIY Girls' missionSmall-scale science experiments may be the best way to describe what goes on in a typical day at a DIY Girls summer camp.

Other projects for the week included designing tie-dye shirts with an attachable light and using a preprogrammed chip to add a blinking light that the girls activate when they put their hands together.

Diana Bocanegra, an electrical engineering student and DIY Girls Program Fellow, works with the girls on their projects and says that the end benefits make it worth the effort.

"It's great to see them creating things," she said. "Sometimes its hard to know how to encourage them when they get frustrated, but then they get it and they're excited."

Rosalinda Montoya, an 11 year old who had participated in the DIY Girls after school program earlier in the year, likes that DIY Girls emphasizes science, technology, engineering and math.

"My favorite subject is math, so I want to do that when I get older," she said. "And I think these circuits are cool, but sewing is hard."

On a deeper level, DIY Girls summer camp is introducing girls to concepts that would not ordinarily be available to them until much later on in their educational careers, if at all. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports that less than 25% of those working in STEM fields are women and only 3% are Latina. Studies show that engaging young girls in STEM education can increase their aptitude. The summer camps offered by DIY Girls are encouraging girls to look beyond cultural stereotypes that tell girls that boys are naturally better at math and spatial reasoning.

There probably aren't too many summer camps where 11 year old girls can go around the room explaining how a circuit works to their peers, but that is exactly what DIY Girls wants to see. During the camp, Montoya walked around the room chatting with her friends, and also stopped to help other girls arrange their circuits correctly.

Dolly Baltazar shows off her purse.

Sophia Caloca and Rosalinda Montoya design tie-dye shirts

They might not yet be old enough to realize it, but what they're learning now could transform into the foundation of the career path they pursue for the rest of their lives. On the final day of camp, Rivas showed the girls a video featuring wearable technology designer Diana Eng, where she explains how she entered into the field. When asked if anyone had heard of anyone working in fashion and technology before, not a single girl raised her hand. That, Rivas says, is exactly the reason why DIY Girls is so important.

Perhaps the most striking take-away from the camp was not the gadgets and products the girls came away with -- those were certainly very cool -- but the level of enthusiasm they displayed for science and technology when allowed to be creative and work practically with these tools.

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The future potential for DIY Girls is wide open. Rivas hopes to be able to continue her work in the community and stay with these girls until it is their turn to attend college. She wants to offer programs that align with the girls' interests and keep them engaged throughout middle school and high school.

"Girls today have a lot of technological skills naturally," Rivas said. "We want to present the different career opportunities available in emerging fields."

Fashion and Wearable Technology was a week-long workshop, but the end of the week was simply the beginning of another for many of the girls in the program. They will continue to learn and build and create throughout the summer and beyond.

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