Sisterhood of science at the 2022 Summer Physics Camp for Young Women

Volunteers empower regional students through 2 weeks of STEM education and mentorship

By Tricia Ware | August 11, 2022

Summer Physics Camp Opt
Campers ranged from eighth grade to high-school seniors and represented 31 schools.

The sixth annual Summer Physics Camp for Young Women gave 40 students from New Mexico and beyond hands-on science experience and mentorship, thanks to 104 volunteer presenters, 75% of whom were women.

“It takes a village,” said camp organizer Anna Llobet-Megias, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which hosts the camp. “And our village is filled with amazing and passionate people who understand the value of what we do.”

The American Association of University Women reports that women comprise only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math, and gaps in college enrollment are largest in some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying STEM fields.

Inspiration and empowerment

The Summer Physics Camp for Young Women strives to bridge the STEM gender gap by immersing students in a free, two-week intensive session covering physics, computer science, astrophysics, robotics, machine learning and professional development to name a few, led by role models who can help students identify career pathways while accompanied by a network of peers to support them on the journey. Empowering students for such careers could also lead to greater gender and income equality in the United States.

“Every single volunteer shares words of wisdom they wish they had been told when they were 14 to 17, like ‘have fun,’ ‘be curious,’ ‘give back to your community,’ ‘it is not all about GPA,’ and ‘if I did it, you can do it, too,’” said Llobet-Megias, explaining that the camp experience goes beyond academics.

Campers ranged from eighth grade to high-school seniors and represented 31 schools. Of them, 82.5% were underrepresented ethnic minorities, 35 from New Mexico and five from Hawaii, thanks to a partnership with the Hawaii Museum of Science and Technology. Pre-camp surveys indicated that about half of campers had parents who did not attend college, approximately 45% qualified for free school lunch and a third said they had never met a scientist.

Exploration at every level

Campers attended presentations online, virtually toured LANL facilities in real time, and completed hands-on projects at home with materials distributed to them in advance. This year, the campers modeled crystalline structures, built robotic hands and constructed models of self-designed solar-powered homes, among other activities.

The feedback from the campers is strong. “It was pretty fun and exciting,” said Amairany Neri of Albuquerque. “I feel like I did more projects at camp than I did in my school physics class all year. I never realized how much I liked circuits until now — seeing people talk about them with so much passion.”

While the camp became virtual in 2020 for pandemic reasons, the approach has proved to be a vital way for campers to attend from a wider area and has allowed for greater participation of presenters from universities, scientific institutions and other DOE laboratories.

A consortium of experts

Although 63% of presenters were Los Alamos scientists, other represented institutions included Harvard University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, N3B, Sandia National Laboratories, University of California-Irvine, University of Cambridge and University of New Mexico.  

Now in its sixth year, the number of campers has doubled since its inception in 2016 thanks to a partnership between Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. Also, the camp has added new features based on camper feedback — such as more small-group breakout sessions and presentations on Lab careers in legal counsel, finance, astrophysics and occupational medicine. Also new this year was the offering of an informal mentorship program allowing participants to stay in contact with their Lab mentor post-camp and receive guidance about Lab internships and other opportunities going forward.

Not only does camp include presentations about academics, it also includes college applications, internships, scholarships and career pathways to the Laboratory and other research institutions.

Stipends for campers

Recognizing that some campers might not be able to attend due to the need for a summer job, these sponsors make it possible for the participants to receive a stipend upon completion of the camp: American Chemical Society, American Physics Society, Athena Engineering Scholars at LANL, Hawaii Science and Technology Museum, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, LANL Foundation, Los Alamos Women in Science, N3B, New Mexico Consortium, New Mexico Network for Women in Science & Engineering, Sandia National Laboratories, Science Accelerating Girls’ Engagement (SAGE), Tech Source, Texas A&M University, Triad National Security and WM Symposia.

“At the end of the day, volunteers carve time out of their busy schedules because they believe that empowering young women to have higher education aspirations is key to making the world a better and safer place for all,” said Llobet-Megias.