Blazing trails

AAUW encourages young women to enter STEM-based fields

GILROY’S OWN Local students Celeste Chavez, Emilia Vidales and Kaitlyn Mitzner attended Tech Trek at Stanford this past summer. Photo: Nancy Fohner
With just as many teenage girls as boys being top consumers of technology, it’s a wonder more young women are not pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-based professions.

A 2015 Pew report on “Teens, Social Media & Technology” revealed that tech consumption rates of young girls surpass boys in areas of social media, while gaming rates are higher for young boys.

Why, then, are there far fewer female graduates of STEM-based programs? And even fewer young women entering STEM-based careers?

Marie Wolbach, a retired medical sociologist, has been working to respond to that problem for decades.

A member of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) since the mid ’70s, Wolbach worked to create Tech Trek—a weeklong summer science camp for young girls entering eighth grade.

As a mother of seven, Wolbach first discovered the disparity between STEM-based programs for girls when she sought out science-based programs for her own children. While she had no problem finding science camps for her sons, the Palo Alto-based Wolbach was at a loss when it came to equitable learning options for her daughters.

In 1998 Wolbach and AAUW of California pioneered the first Tech Trek experience—inviting 100 young women to participate in the weeklong campus experience at Stanford University. The idea for the program fell right into the mission of the AAUW, which, for more than 100 years, has worked to address social, educational, political and economic issues affecting women.

Tech Trek teacher and Gilroy resident Nancy Fohner, Ph.D., says it all began when the AAUW came out with a report (“Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,” January, 1991) indicating girls lose interest in tech and science-based learning after seventh grade.

“Marie’s idea was to do three things.” says Fohner “To bring the girls to a college campus; To meet other girls who are interested in math and science and form lifelong friendships; To be exposed to science a career.”

Fohner says she views the campus experience as one of the most effective parts of Tech Trek.

Fohner, a seventh grade science teacher at Peterson Middle School in Santa Clara with a Ph.D. from Cornell in biochemistry and nutrition says that although she has only 15 contact hours with the girls during their weeklong stay, they are plugged into many different experiences during their stay. “The rest of the time they are having classes on personal budgeting, astronomy, talks from Pixar, women chemists and women engineers.” says Fohner. “It’s a mix of lecture and hands-on. They even have a women’s professional evening, where they talk to women about all different types of fields the girls get incredible exposure.”

Fohner’s own daughter, Alison, was part of the first group to attend Tech Trek in 1998.

Alison, who holds a Ph.D. in public health genetics from the University of Washington says that while she was earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at Stanford there were at least four other girls from her Tech Trek.

“I hadn’t seen them in years and we still remember each other from that one week,” says Alison.

Alison acknowledges she had experiences other kids may not have and says she was lucky to have parents who prioritized science and creativity.

“I had a lot of exposure to that type of thing when I was a kid,” she says.

Today, the program selects 80 underserved students to attend each session—girls who may not have had this experience otherwise. Each year the local AAUW branches raise funds for the program and work with local school counselors and teachers to nominate the high-achieving participants. Three girls are chosen from Gilroy and eight are chosen from Morgan Hill.

“The Wildflower run really helps Morgan Hill bring in $25,000 a year for [Tech Trek],” says Nancy Fohner.

Gilroy’s branch, which is older and smaller, says Fohner, holds an annual fall membership luncheon to raise funds to send the girls to camp. “It’s all they can do to raise that $3,000—they feel very strongly about being able to support those girls,” says Fohner.

Connie Rogers, Gilroy’s AAUW publicity chair, says the luncheon always helps to get new members and raise funds, but she says this year it’s special.

“We always have a really good speaker at this lunch,” says Rogers. “It just happens that this year it is the woman who founded the Tech Trek program.”

Director of Stanford’s Tech Trek for seven years and co-director for two, Wolbach supervised Tech Trek as it grew from 10 camps in California to 12 camps around the country. Wolbach has received various accolades for her tireless social work, earning the Classic Woman by Meredith Publishing Corporation in 2013 and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal for Public Service, part of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, in 2015.

In addition to these two national awards, Wolbach will be honored in October with the annual Angel Award given by the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the volunteer-driven program continues to inspire. Former attendees often find themselves participating as junior counselors, dorm mothers or camp directors.

“We were hoping it would expand to more states,” says Fohner. “It’s expensive and I think Marie’s estimated she’s reached over 12,000 girls since 1998. It would be great to reach more.”

Of the more than 12,000 that have passed through the program, there are some standouts, including one local Gilroy student named Rebecca.

“In Gilroy we try to choose girls who would really benefit from the program,” says Fohner. “One year I recall a daughter of a migrant laborers who worked with B&T Farms in Gilroy—she ended up attending Stanford”.

Longtime Tech Trek chair, Margie Enger also remembers Rebecca and says they do try to follow the young women and see where they end up—recalling that when Rebecca returned from her summer program at Stanford she said that was the school she was going to attend.

“And she did go to Stanford and she graduated,” says Enger.

“They also seem to have gained a sense of confidence,” says Enger. “One mother said she was so worried about her [daughter]. She was so bashful and shy and when she came back she was the liaison between the city and school for a community service project and a master of ceremony a talent show at Rutger school. She says her daughter realized, ‘You met other women and you meet other girls. All of a sudden it hit me that these people are as smart as me or smarter. A lot of people feel it’s ok to be a nerd. I’m not such a nerd. There are other people like me.’”

When asked why the divide continues to persist, Fohner says she’s not sure.

“I just don’t know,” she says. “The girls are capable they are super in mat. Their problem solving skills are great. It’s a puzzle.”

A December 2016 article in the suggests there remain unconscious biases around careers in tech.

Perhaps it’s that young women are not readily recognizing the correlation between popular apps and services they make use of and STEM-related fields.

Even something as wildly interesting to young teens and preteens as design or makeup. From the chemistry involved in makeup or perfume to engineering the perfect brushes or developing the next big app—the options for STEM-based careers are endless.

Doctors, scientist, engineers and designers do interesting things to make our lives easier every day.

Both Fohner and her daughter Alison are still passionate about the program and its benefits. “At this camp you get seven days of immersive exposure to the breadth of things that people are doing with scientific concepts and how much it relates to life,” says Alison.

Fohner highlights certain classes like a CSI class and a biology class—two she’s particularly passionate about.

“I think they come home with an interest and a love for science,” says Fohner. “And, a definite interest in going to college and they’ve been exposed to a ton of very capable women.”

Young women who are interested in being nominated for Tech Trek should see their counselor or science teacher. The American Association of University Women invites branch members, guests and Tech Trek students to join the fall membership luncheon with special guest speaker Marie Wolbach on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 11:30am at the Westside Grill. For details contact Thelma Raby at [email protected] or 408.427.7439 or Suzanne Barrett at [email protected] or 408.683.2400.

Debra Eskinazi
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About Debra Eskinazi
Debra Eskinazi is the editor of South Valley magazine.