Camp helps girls find their place in math and science

Photo by Daniel Nash

Photo by Daniel Nash

Nardose Haile, nearing the end of summer break, recently decided she wanted to begin her freshman year at Highline High School by bringing her best friend a gift. Nothing big, but something personal — a cute new keychain.

But rather than hop over to the Southcenter Claire’s, Haile decided to take matters into her own hands: she designed the keychain from scratch in autoCAD and constructed it in a 3D printer.

Haile is one of 40 students attending Alexa Cafe — a science, technology, engineering and math summer program — on the University of Washington campus under a scholarship provided by former Starbucks President Howard Behar and his wife, social worker Dr. Lynn Behar.

The weeklong summer camp seeks to introduce girls aged 10 to 15 to STEM fields, with an eye toward using technology to promote social good. Each camper devoted their week to studying one area of STEM, such as JavaScript coding, mobile game design, or web design.

Haile knew immediately she wanted to try her hand at 3D modeling and printing.

“I was really interested in it,” she said. “I think last year at school, in STEM class, our teacher printed out a tiny robot and showed it to the class. I wanted to do it too.”

Igniting and nurturing children’s fascination with these kinds of projects is part of the reason why camp namesake Alexa Ingram-Cauchi — a Seattle native who now lives close to Madison Valley — founded iD Tech with her mother Kathryn Ingram, in 1999.

Their company created and operated tech-oriented camps across the U.S. to introduce kids and teenagers — boys and girls alike — to these concepts.

But tech fields were only becoming less welcoming to women. In a study of American college computer science departments, the National Science Foundation found that women went from earning 29 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees in 1995 to 18 percent in 2012.

Facing those numbers as a young female student can make for a lonely experience, and Ingram-Cauchi said she saw Alexa Cafe as a means not just to introduce STEM concepts, but to frame them within a network of female-positive support.

“We have a tremendous amount of repeat girls,” Ingram-Cauchi said. “As they report back to us, they let us know they’re now signing up for AP classes they might not have considered before. If you look around, you can get some amazing peer bonding and support, so I think it’s important that the Cafe helps these girls connect and realize their interests aren’t so different.”

After Howard Behar left Starbucks he and Lynn Behar threw themselves into philanthropy. In Howard’s words, he was “looking for things that filled [his] soul and helped the world.” So he was thrilled to find out about Alexa Cafe.

“I jumped on it,” he said. “We can’t afford for all these young women not having the opportunity to study technology.”

Howard said advancement in technology was the greatest chance of advancing society itself. So making technology fields inaccessible to women was akin to cutting the economy’s potential in half, he said.

He reached out to iD Tech and agreed to pay one week’s tuition for 40 students total from the Tacoma and Highline school districts.

As avid supporters of UW — Lynn earned her master’s degree and PhD from the School of Social Work, while Howard grew up in the U-District — the Behars also agreed they hoped the program would encourage campers to become future undergrads.

“I asked a girl if she wanted to go to college and she said ‘Oh yes: I want to be a Husky,’” Lynn said.

The camp’s counselors also encourage campers to think about how technology to improve society.

Alizah Johnson, an eighth-grader at Sylvester Middle School, spent her week at Alexa Cafe studying videography. After learning all about screenwriting, storyboarding, and using Adobe Premiere to edit projects with music and green screen effects, she decided to employ her newfound knowledge to produce a public service announcement against bullying.

Like many middle school students, she’s been on the receiving end of bullying. But at camp, she’s found plenty of friends and a newfound appreciation for how her media is made.

“It’s really interesting,” she said. “I’m thinking about coming back next year and studying coding or 3D printing.”