A New Formula for Success: Camp Puts Early FOCUS on STEM

By Sudha Kamath


Mason students mentor middle school girls in science, technology, engineering and math lessons at a new camp. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

George Mason University is trying to keep a group that is underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math fields “focused” on STEM careers.

The Females of Color Underrepresented in STEM (FOCUS) Camp is teaching hands-on lessons in astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, forensic science, innovation, geography, geology, mathematics and physics to local middle school girls from July 21 to 25. The new FOCUS Camp, designed by George Mason’s STEM Accelerator Program, is being held in Exploratory Hall on Mason’s Fairfax Campus.

The camp was created by math professor Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, director of the College of Science’s STEM Accelerator Program; biology professor Claudette Davis; forensic science professor Kelly Knight; and Mason alumna Danielle Blunt, founder of the nonprofit Girls Inspired and Ready to Lead Inc. (GIRL).

“We really want to expose girls of color to different career opportunities and to women who look like they do, to show them that a STEM career is possible,” says Blunt, MAIS ’11. Three of the 18 camp participants also belong to Blunt’s nonprofit; others heard about FOCUS through community organizations, schools, churches and sororities. Some FOCUS Camp participants also earned scholarships that were funded through donations to the camp.

Four Mason students are serving as counselors. Naomi Coles is a Mason sophomore majoring in biology. “I love working with young girls and bringing STEM to their attention,” says the Prince George’s County native who’s aiming to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. “There were people who did that for me when I was growing up. Sometimes, as girls of color, we feel inferior because of what society may tell us. But this program is instilling a sense of confidence for all these girls to know, ‘No one can stop me from achieving my dreams.’”

Camper Taylor Rogers may be following in Coles’ science-minded footsteps—with a focus down under. The 12-year-old from Alexandria wants to become a marine biologist. “I’m inspired by the college students here,” she says. “I know I’m with people who understand. The counselors have inspired me to do better.”


NBC4 meteorologist Veronica Johnson is one of several experts who discussed STEM careers at the FOCUS Camp. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“I’m a proponent of learning by doing,” says Seshaiyer, who adds that campers don lab coats and learn about everything from DNA and polymers in the biology and chemistry labs to the bioengineering involved in building rollercoasters. The focus also is on a job path. “We’re promoting the four C’s—communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity—all skills that are necessary for 21st-century careers.”

Other Mason STEM Accelerator instructors involved with the FOCUS Camp include chemistry and biochemistry professor Katherine Pettigrew, math professor Mary Nelson and astrobiology professor Mary Ewell.

Camp participants also are meeting experts such as NBC4 meteorologist Veronica Johnson from WRC-TV in Washington, D.C.; Victoria Lowery, chief information security officer for the Federal Communications Commission; modeling and simulation engineer Armelle Franklin; and Kimberly Fields, from the IT division of Fairfax County Public Schools.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal to be able to mold and shape and engage young women of the future,” says Fields.