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BLAKE'S BRAINIACS: Growing UIW miniGEMS camp helps girls gain STEAM

Free program builds problem-solving skills, confidence in middle school girls

SAN ANTONIO – In this week's edition of Blake's Brainiacs, a growing program at the University of the Incarnate Word is working to make science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM, more accessible to girls.

Tomas Goldaracena started the UIW miniGEMS program in 2015 with a single, weeklong summer camp for 20 girls. Now, it's grown to four two-week summer camps for 120 girls, with yearlong programs all over the city -- and it's all free.

"MiniGEMS started as a way of closing the gender and ethnic gap in college engineering programs," Goldaracena said. "The U.S. has a really low percentage of women engineers. About 12 percent of the engineers in the country are women. We recognized that something had to be done."

Through research, Goldaracena learned that middle school is when girls are normally discouraged to go into STEM fields. That's why he decided his program would focus on girls in grades six through eight.

GEMS originally stood for Girls in Engineering, Math and Science. But now that Goldaracena has added arts to the curriculum, it includes a broader learning experience.

"I feel like, with the right support, we can make a meaningful impact," Goldaracena said.

During the course of the camp, the girls broke up into groups and explored science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics and programming through an assortment of activities.

"We all get in and huddle and talk about what are we gonna do and stuff like that," one student said.

Toward the end of camp, these middle school brainiacs tested out LEGO Mindstorm robots they built in their groups, using computers to code the different tasks they were required to perform.

"We're working on making it stop by seeing this red cup," said a member of Team Cherries. Their color was red.

Each team was assigned a color on which to base its name. Some of the teams added extra parts to make their robots perform different tricks than those performed by their competitors' robots.

"Help us flip over other robots and push them out of the ring," said a member of Team Avocado Snakes, the green group.

The miniGEMS camps are overseen by Dr. Michael Frye, an associate professor of engineering at the university. He's the director of the Autonomous Vehicle Systems Research and Education Laboratory, where campers had a chance to work with the school's drones.

Under Frye's supervision, they observed test flights of the unmanned aircraft, coded to fly in an enclosed area within the lab and recorded their observations with data from the drone's sensors.

This year, miniGEMS campers were recruited from independent school districts of Judson, San Antonio and Southside and from various private schools across San Antonio. Some middle school science teachers were also recruited to help out with the program.

"This school year, we actually brought miniGEMS to our school, and we had a club," said Ana Lea Torres, science teacher at Tafolla Middle School and UIW miniGEMS instructor. "We worked on the things that we're working on right now throughout the whole year."

Torres said that, after last summer's program, she noticed significant improvements in her students' programming and problem-solving skills.

"It was a lot easier for them to kind of throw back and forth their ideas with other girls in their group and problem-solve on their own, without asking for as much help as they were before," Torres said.

"They find their voice," Goldaracena said. "They know that they can no longer just hide who they are or the things that they like because they go back to their schools and they find their friends who have similar interests and similar passions and it becomes like a network for them."

Now, UIW plans to expand the program to high school students and will eventually follow the girls on their journey to college.

"The idea is to keep the same girls that start coming when they're in sixth grade," Goldaracena said. "So we'll have a pipeline going from middle school to high school and, then, hopefully, to college for girls to major in engineering and other STEM fields."

WEB EXTRA: miniGEMS participants end camp with celebratory banquet

Goldaracena, however, will not be there for the expansion. He's graduating from the UIW master's program and moving into a STEM career. But he said he will carry the program with him wherever he goes.

"You can be a great engineer, a great scientist, but if your work has no meaning, then there's no purpose to what you do," Goldaracena said. "MiniGEMS has changed my life."

The program also provides free transportation and free food for campers. Watch the video below for more.

If you want your children to join the miniGEMS program, talk to their principal or the superintendent of their school district and ask them to contact the miniGEMS program at UIW.