Meara Isenberg, Dallas Morning News
They call themselves ‘the sexy scientists’. It’s a name taken on by 16-year-old Victoria Taylor and her friends — high school-aged girls donning white lab coats who have a passion for science.
Just five weeks earlier, they were total strangers.
“I’ve made so many friends; we all sit here,” Taylor said, motioning to a white lab table inside the new STEM Center of Excellence in the Mountain Creek area of Dallas. The Center is a part of the Girl Scouts Camp Whispering Cedars. “Every time I come here, I’m looking forward to seeing them and doing experiments with them.”
The teens are part of The Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas’ Summer Experience in Antibiotic Discovery and Development (SEADD). It's one of several summer programs in the organization’s initiative to propel young girls to careers the fields of in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM.
“We’ve been doing STEM for 105 years, but this is the first time we’ve done it in a really deliberate way to drive girls into STEM education and then STEM leaders,” said Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas CEO Jennifer Bartkowski.
A looming crisis
The idea was brought to life with help from a leader in technology. Texas Instruments, a Fortune 500 company, is one of the sponsors of the camp's STEM center, and helped develop the curriculum for the programs.
“They saw a crisis coming,” Bartkowski said of Texas Instruments. “In 2020 there’s not going to be enough women engineers to hire.”
Answering the call, the Girl Scouts transformed the pre-World War II era Whispering Cedars camp into a growing space for bright young scientists.
The campground that previously provided kids with traditional activities such as swimming and archery now also provides girls year-round opportunities in robotics, computer coding, botany, chemistry and the science of music.
“We are very proud of our relationship with the Girl Scouts,” said Andy Smith, executive director of the TI Foundation. “As far as I know, there is no one else in the nation doing the work that Camp Whispering Cedars is doing.”
Much of Camp Whispering Cedars is under construction to add additional features such as new nature trails and more classrooms. But the 12 girls who were attending the SEADD camp last week worked inside the already completed Hoglund Foundation Program Center.
“In the past it was, ‘we’re going to go make cupcakes,’ or ‘we are going to go hiking, la la la,’ but here, we’re going to sit and we’re going to look at proteins in your body," Taylor said. "We’re going to talk about how the liver works.
“Seeing these young girls here, doing such a complex process, means a lot,” she added. “We are dominating the medical field.”
'Literally lighting things on fire'
Bartlkowski said that there are two main components of any program at the camp. One is that they must be centered around girls.
"Being a girl-only space is really important because you don't have the pressures of having boys in the room," Bartkowski said. "In this environment, it's fun to watch because when they ask a question, all the girls raise their hand."
Taylor, who is wavering between a career as a prosecutor or an apothecary, agreed.
"You change yourself when you're around guys, I know that because I do that at school," Taylor said. "Here, being with girls, you talk about girl stuff. You can relax and be yourself."
The second primary objective is to make sure campers are directly involved.
“It has to be hands on,” she said. “They are literally putting things into test tubes, they are literally lighting things on fire, they are literally making antibiotics out of nothing.”
The SEADD camp gave the girls the opportunity to do just that. They met two days a week for five weeks to explore the science behind developing antibiotics. With the help of scientists from The Shoulders of Giants, a nonprofit that allows young people to experience science firsthand, the camp exposed the girls to a previously hidden world of microorganisms.
“We took a water sample from the creek here at Cedars, and we grew that bacteria up two different ways,” Shoulders of Giants Senior Chemist Mandy Dark said. “They scanned the bacteria for possible antibiotic activity.”
The camp touched on biochemistry, molecular biology and microbiology. The experience has "been really eye-opening" for 16-year-old Amel Ismail.
When she arrived at the camp, Ismail was wary of the subject material due to a difficult chemistry class she had at school. A few cheek swabs and bacteria tests later, she discovered success.
"I came to this camp thinking, is the science field for me?" the Allen High School junior said. "I found Chemistry, no. But Microbiology? Yes."