The dearth of women working in STEM fields is a hot issue these days.
Marie Wolbach was way ahead of the curve.
Wolbach got the ball rolling locally in 1998, when she successfully applied for a grant from the American Association of University Women and started a summer science camp for girls.
“When I was writing the grant proposal, I could not use the word STEM because nobody knew what it meant 20 years ago,” said Wolbach, who has lived in South Palo Alto for 34 years. “There were many people who said, ‘What’s the value of science camp for girls? Who would want to go to that.’ ”
Since then, Wolbach has overseen the program’s expansion nationally, teaching some 15,000 rising eighth-graders in science, technology, math and more. The program now known as Tech Trek has grown to 22 one-week camps in 10 states this summer, including two at Stanford University.
For her efforts, Wolbach was named the 2017 winner of the Angel Award bestowed by the Palo Alto Kiwanis Club for significant impact on youths.
“Marie Wolbach has single-handedly made this world a far better place by opening the eyes and minds of girls to the power of mathematic and science education,” LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge and former assistant dean of the Stanford Law School, wrote in recommending Wolbach for the Kiwanis award.
Tech Trek is empowering girls to go to college and explore opportunities once deemed unsuitable for them. Wolbach sees that empowerment reflected in how the girls think.
“I’ve noticed the girls that come to camp have changed,” Wolbach said. “We’re seeing maturity and awareness increase in the girls, so that when we see them at 12 and 13 many are focused on what they want to do and how they’re going to get there. And when they first came, there was not nearly so much of that.
“I am optimistic. The results are really quite amazing.”
All students attend the camps on scholarships from the AAUW. They must be nominated by their math or science teacher, then impress judges with an essay and during an interview.
AAUW research shows that Tech Trek alumnae are less susceptible to negative stereotypes about women in STEM, surpass the national average in advanced high school math and science courses, and have been introduced to STEM careers that were previously unknown to them.
Camp days begin with morning core classes. The afternoons tend to be project-based and might include a field trip to a tech company or work in robotics, app invention, nanotechnology or forensics led by professional mentors.
One popular project is making ice cream in a plastic bag.
“They put the ingredients in the bag and tie it up tight and throw it back and forth between each other until it’s formed ice cream,” Wolbach said.
In the evenings, there are other lessons related to science or the girls’ future, which can include learning about how to pay for college, as well as visits from women professionals who tell about their careers in science or fields related to science.
Stanford grad student Nora Jane Brackenbill is among the former Tech Trek campers who have returned to the camps as volunteers.
“At Tech Trek, not only did I meet inspiring women in a variety of STEM careers, I also met other girls my age who were interested in science,” Brackenbill said in a news release from the Kiwanis Club. “For the first time, I could envision a future for myself and for my fellow campers in the scientific community.”
The AAUW’s decision to hold the camps on university campuses brought an added benefit: It helps girls picture themselves going to college.
“Partly because we have the diversity of girls, many had never been on a college campus,” Wolbach said, “and many would write on their evaluations, ‘I never thought about going to college before, but this is beautiful and wonderful. I’m definitely going to college now.’ ”
All of the camp courses and labs are hands-on, group learning, no homework, no grading, no criticism.
“It is fun, but at the same time, they learn a lot,” Wolbach said.
It didn’t take long for Wolbach to realize the impact the camps can have. In the first or second year, a girl wrote her a letter and said that when she got back home she went to math class and moved from the back of the room with the girls to the front of the room with the boys and didn’t hesitate to raise her hand if she knew the answer.
“That’s because of Tech Trek,” Wolbach said.
Wolbach recalled a very quiet girl from Sacramento who was driven to Stanford by an AAUW volunteer because her immigrant parents did not drive. She was so quiet that other girls in her dorm group worried about her. By the end of the week, she found Wolbach in a group of maybe 400 people and said, “I wish I could stay another week because this was the best week of my life,” then gave Wolbach a big hug.
The quiet girl went back home and ran for class president — and won.
“The student said, ‘Well, if the AAUW could pick me to go to a science camp, I should be able to do something else.’ So right there, the first year, we had the proof that there are all sorts of fringe benefits,” Wolbach said.
For Wolbach, the program’s success brings much gratification and gives her hope that things will be better than they were years ago.
She became interested in science as a kid, working with her father in his pharmacy.
“I just thought it was really cool that I could take apart a toy and see what made it work,” Wolbach said. “Because I was a girl, of course, I got teased incessantly. … I think sometimes you have innate interests and they’re fostered.”
In high school, Wolbach was the only girl in physics class, gaining admission only by convincing the principal that she really wanted to take the course.
In 1970, with a nursing background, Wolbach wanted to apply for a physician’s assistant program at the University of Utah.
“They wouldn’t take my application because I was female,” she said.
Years later, while raising seven children, Wolbach was moved to action after one of her daughters was teased a lot in high school for taking many AP classes and for raising her hand in AP physics and doing well on tests.
“I was aware that things were changing a little bit, but I really wasn’t so invested in this until (then),” she said. “I realized that, OK, we’re 25 years later and things aren’t changing. Maybe something should be done.”
Raising a family and working part-time precluded her from taking action, then in 1991 she was motivated by an AAUW study titled “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” which focused on the way girls perceive being in math and sciences and how they drop out around middle-school age despite often being among the best in those classes.
“They didn’t have the confidence they could have. They were told, ‘Oh, these are hard classes,’ they take maybe more homework, and they’d rather be doing something with their friends and they got discouraged. All of the factors were in that report that I could relate to, that we were observing around us even in 1992.”
The Kiwanis Club award comes with a $1,500 prize that will help fund the camps. Wolbach will receive the honor in an Oct. 19 ceremony at the Sheraton Palo Alto. Retired Palo Alto police chief Dennis Burns will emcee the event, a fundraiser for the club’s community service projects and grants. Tickets can be bought at http://kiwanisangelaward.org
“It’s really special to be honored locally, to be able to have friends there,” said Wolbach, who has received a pair of national awards for her work. “The others I’ve had to go to New York City or Washington, D.C., and they were wonderful and I treasure them, but it’s something unique about knowing that my friends are going to be there.
“It’s amazing that this honor comes when I’m the only one standing there. It takes hundreds of women every year, almost a thousand volunteers. … It doesn’t seem fair for only me to be standing up there when I know that there are all of those women unseen behind me.”
Wolbach’s advice to girls who might think the odds are stacked against them in STEM fields?
“Just hang in there. Things are changing, maybe slowly, but you can, if you really want to work hard at it, do anything you want to do.”
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