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Campfires, Camping Take Back Seat to Coding, Sciences at Girl Scouts’ STEM Center


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Dave Moore, Dallas Innovates

The center, which opens to the public this weekend, marks the Girl Scouts of USA’s first scout camp property that’s been integrated into a STEM Center. It’s a $13.8 million makeover of the 91-year-old Camp Whispering Cedars, a 92-acre plot of land in southern Dallas. Parts of the redo opened as early as 2016, but now the transformation is complete. 

More importantly, it’s a direct answer to an industry shortage of workers who have the confidence, curiosity, and critical thinking skills needed to solve problems and to innovate processes.

“I love bringing people here — especially my Girl Scout friends,” said Jennifer Bartkowski, CEO of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas. “This makes them go, ‘Oh. It’s not cookies, camps, and crafts.’ This is [the] 21st century. One hundred percent of the people I’ve brought out here are completely floored. They had no idea that Girl Scouts does something like this.”

By “this,” Bartkowski means using things like archery, robots, and dropping eggs and pumpkins off tall structures to teach physics, coding, and other scientific principles to girls in their formative years.

“I joined Girl Scouts when I was about 8 years old as a Brownie, and it was through my experience in scouting that this passion [for science] grew,” wrote Mary Katherine Futrell, a 10th grader at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, to Dallas Innovates

Futrell is working on a Girl Scout-sanctioned research project exploring the impact of certain sunscreens on living coral. Her website is part of a public awareness campaign on that topic.

Futrell said she attended a STEM event at Camp Whispering Cedars a few years ago, where she took part in hands-on experiments. More importantly, she got to meet women who pursued careers in science.

“I remember seeing one of the women talk and thinking, ‘Wow, I want to be just like her.’ These experiences were some of the many ways in which Girl Scouts has shaped my outlook on the STEM fields: that a girl can do STEM, and she can do it well.”

TEXAS INSTRUMENTS, OTHERS HELP CAMP TRANSFORM INTO STEM CENTER

Bartkowski said key in incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) into traditional Girl Scout activities has been the organization’s STEM advisory committee — especially committee member Texas Instruments.

“We have a very diverse STEM advisory committee, made up of corporate, university, and school district representatives,” she told a group of Girl Scout executives during a recent tour. “They’re quite robust. Three to five years ago, we were talking about coding. Now, we’re doing coding. Five years ahead, we’ll be talking about something else. Probably artificial intelligence.”

The genesis of the STEM Center of Excellence occurred when Texas Instruments approached the Girl Scouts in 2010, indicating a critical impending shortage of engineers and others with science backgrounds. The Girl Scouts then worked with TI to develop a STEM/engineering patch for scouts in grades K-12; the company’s Texas Instruments Foundation also donated $6.2 million, to help with teacher recruitment in cities where TI is located, and to help fund the construction of the center.

A virtual who’s who of major donors have joined TI in funding the STEM center: the Perot Foundation, the Moody Foundation, the Rees-Jones Foundation, the Harold Simmons Foundation, Mary Ann Cree, Crystal Charity Ball, among others.

“Ten million dollars were raised before we had anything to show for it, and they trusted us,” Bartkowski said.

Those who haven’t donated cash toward the project have volunteered their time.

Several Girl Scout troop leaders have been trained by NASA to use the Girl Scouts’ large telescopes, said Audrey Kwik, director of the STEM center. Those telescopes are highly effective at Camp Whispering Cedars, which is roughly a 20-minute drive from downtown Dallas and is relatively free of light pollution.

Aside from offering bunkhouses, a ropes course, archery range, and plenty of lab space, the camp/STEM center includes a new swimming pool … which, of course, will serve as a laboratory for an underwater robotics program. The Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas is developing the program with the Women in Engineering Program of Texas A&M University.

Christina Salcido, a vice president of mission operations at Girl Scouts of Orange County, walked away impressed at the end of her tour at the center.

“We need to be sure to expand the number of opportunities, and making it easier for troop leaders to deliver to the girls,” she said.

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