There’s plenty to like about what the City of Westland and the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) have been doing in the ever-evolving space of youth STEM education. The two partners already have an innovative mentoring program at the Jefferson Barns Learning Lab, which hopes to spark kids’ college and career dreams by pairing UM-Dearborn students with youth in the city’s economically challenged Norwayne neighborhood. Now this summer, that same core idea is getting a sporty twist with a two-week day camp targeting STEM’s gender gap.
Women continue to be underrepresented in many STEM careers, and research has identified a curious kink in the educational pipeline as a likely factor. “Studies have shown that the middle to high school transition is when some young women start shifting away from things like engineering and computer science,” says Jeanne Girard, director of Extended Learning and Outreach at UM-Dearborn.
Given this challenge, Girard and her team of collaborators set out to design a program that could help sustain young women’s interest in STEM subjects through this critical time. One color-outside-the-lines idea that stuck : A two-week day camp that combines building mobile apps with playing golf.
Professional golfer and former UM-Dearborn golf coach Kelly Kuhlman, who’s helping with the golf instruction, says golf and app development aren’t as strange a match as they may appear. She says technology and analytics are playing a bigger role in the sport all the time. And with constant mental analysis of distances, trajectories and angles of approach, there’s a ton of computational problem solving that’s baked into the game.
Computer science professor Brahim Medjahed says pairing sports with app development makes a lot of sense from his perspective too. “I like to think that computational thinking is fun in its own right,” he says, smiling. “But it’s summer. Kids want to be outside. And they love their phones. So why not teach them about coding, but in a way that seems fun to them?”
That’s why the summer camp will include a half day of golf instruction with Kuhlman and UM-Dearborn’s student-athletes; and another half where Medjahed, two of his standout female computer science students, and Jefferson Barns Learning Lab Director Josh Rychlicki will teach participants how to build apps for their phones. One cool thing: The apps will be designed to help students with an aspect of their golf game (for example, recommending an appropriate club based on the distance to the hole.) What exactly the apps do, though, is totally up to the kids.
UM-Dearborn education professor Mesut Duran will also be lending his expertise with a post-project evaluation. In particular, he’s interested to see if combining sports with STEM activities can do what the team hopes it can do — namely, strengthen students’ interest in STEM subjects during their identity-shaping teenage years.
Westland mayor William Wild says partnerships with UM-Dearborn faculty, staff and students is crucial to pulling off innovative projects like Girls, Golf and Gadgets. “Part of that is about a pooling of resources,” Wild says. “But it’s also about leveraging everyone’s creativity and unique expertise to come up with ideas that really reach kids and provide a meaningful opportunity that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
CECS Associate Dean and Professor Ghassan Kridli also sees big potential in the project’s creative approach. “The program offers a way to kindle curiosity among the participants in STEM education by helping them develop their own connections of the applications of STEM in everyday life,” he says. “The success of the program is a win for all.”
The Girls, Golf and Gadgets program is made possible with support from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Legacy Funds at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. The camp runs August 12 through August 22, and participants can register through July 26 at umdearborn.edu/G3-program. There is no cost for the program. The Jefferson Barns Learning Lab is supported with funding from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which is awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and is administered by the Michigan State Police.