STEM camp at Sonoma State University boosts confidence for middle school girls

The Girls Tinker Academy is a free two-week summer program that offers hands-on activities in the realms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.|

Fourteen-year-old Brook Bransford heard people say “throw like a girl” or “cry like a girl” as if girls were weak - and she didn't like it. So she joined STEM camp like a girl.

“Girls are really underestimated,” said Brook, who spent Monday morning building a pinball machine from cardboard, metal, marbles and popsicle sticks.

Brook is one of 24 middle school girls enrolled in the first year of the Girls Tinker Academy, a free two-week summer program that offers hands-on activities in the realms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The girls work on robotics, computer coding, sewing, crafting and 3D modeling at the new Makerspace in the Sonoma State University Library, and many of them say it's boosted their confidence in the male-dominated STEM fields.

“We're actually doing the work instead of just talking about it or hearing about it,” Brook said.

The camp is a project of the Career Technical Education Foundation Sonoma County and a partnership between the School of Science and Technology at Sonoma State and Community Women Investing in STEM Equity.

Natalie Hobson, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at SSU, is one of the camp's instructors. She said the girls are curious, fun and energetic, and an all-female environment has been beneficial to the campers. They were chosen from 64 submitted applications from around Sonoma County.

“I think having it be all girls allows the girls to not be afraid to engage in the activities that they're interested in and passionate about,” Hobson said.

The girls learned about weaving baskets, at first in a checkerboard, then in more patterns, which brought in mathematical skills. They spent another day last week making LED headbands and bracelets.

“I would have seen less of an incentive to make those types of products, had it been mixed gender,” Hobson said. “Typically, with mixed genders, I just see more hesitation.”

SSU computer science professor Anamary Leal is also a camp instructor. As a Latina, she said she understands first hand the barriers women of color face in a STEM field.

Only 1 percent of the computing workforce are Hispanic women, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. About 26 percent of the computing workforce are women, and only 10 percent are women of color.

“It's a very, very difficult environment. There are social and economic factors that influence these things. There's cultural factors, too,” Leal said.

Leal recalled being the only girl in her computer science class in high school.

“We want to give girls that nurturing environment, to give them that network,” she said

The network comes in the form of women speakers who share their career stories in STEM - including their failures and successes alike - and about a dozen Sonoma State students majoring in a STEM field who spend a couple afternoons a week with the Tinker Academy girls.

“They did some fun, interactive components. And the hope for that mentorship is that it continues even after this program,” Hobson said.

The girls collectively say the camp has make them more confident to follow their passions in STEM.

“We get to see that it's possible,” said Cosette Waterman, 13, who worked with Brook on building a pinball machine.

Cosette will head to Santa Rosa Middle School for eighth grade next month. She wants to study wildlife biology.

“I've always known I wanted to get into that field, but this camp has really boosted that,” she said.

Vasty Ortiz, 13, wants to become a mechanical engineer and work with prosthetics and robotics when she grows up. She said the camp has expanded her horizons, and she and her sister will likely be the first generation in their Mexican-American family to go to college.

“I just think it's great that they're showing girls, ‘Hey, it's not just men,'” she said.

The Tinker Academy girls will showcase their camp projects on Thursday, the last day of the two-week camp.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or On Twitter @susanmini.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.