Worcester, We Have a Mission: Girls at Camp Reach Learn that STEM Careers are Not Limited to Planet Earth

Seventh-grade Campers Engage with WPI President Laurie Leshin and Fellow Women Teammates from NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Mission
July 29, 2014

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On August 5, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover will mark two Earth years on Mars. NASA has been celebrating the women behind Curiosity since the mission completed a full Mars year (687 Earth days) on June 24. Today that celebration continued at WPI's Camp Reach when seventh-grade girls met with WPI President Laurie Leshin and some of the other women who continue to play important roles in this mission, and in space exploration overall.

"Statistics show that the middle school years are critical for keeping girls interested in science, and Camp Reach does an outstanding job at fostering passion for STEM. I'm so pleased that WPI helps ensure that these girls receive the mentoring that we know is critical for keeping them in the pipeline," said Leshin. "As a member of the Mars Curiosity team, I have worked with amazing women with critically important scientific and technological expertise – everything from soil science to software engineering to chemistry and beyond. My hope is that by meeting some of the women of Curiosity, these girls will leave Camp Reach knowing the sky's the limit."

Camp Reach, now in its 18th year, is one of several WPI K-12 programs aimed at science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for girls. Each year, 30 girls from throughout Massachusetts participate in the two-week residential program and partake in hands-on workshops, a design project for a community organization, a visit to an engineering workplace, along with recreational activities. They return for follow-up programs during the academic year.

In 2011 Camp Reach won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring because it has been proven successful: according to a 2009 study, almost 18 percent of Camp Reach participants intended to pursue an engineering major in college, as compared with 2.9 percent of a control group and a national average of 2.5 percent for women. A follow-up study showed that the Camp Reach group had more positive perceptions of engineers than the control group, and the access to role models and mentors was found to be one of the most influential program elements. Regardless of education or career plans, participants cited Camp Reach as providing a sense of empowerment and self-esteem. As high school students they showed high self-rating of computer skills, math abilities, and intellectual self-confidence, compared to national averages for women. They also showed high enrollments in calculus, physics, and STEM activities as high school students.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to assess ancient habitable environments and major changes in Martian environmental conditions. Each of the rover's 10 science instruments has people responsible for evaluating newly received data and planning new activities for Curiosity to perform on Mars. Other scientists participating in operations serve on scientific theme groups that pull together information from multiple instruments and choose priorities for upcoming measurements. Several dozen people are needed for each day of operating Curiosity on Mars. This team must plan the rover’s daily activities precisely to fit within available budgets of time, power, and data-downlink capacity. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Curiosity mission. Rover team members who participated in today's Camp Reach event included JPL engineers Jamie Catchen, Erisa Hines, Megan Richardson, Louise Jandura and Amanda Steffy.

Leshin, a geochemist and space scientist, has been involved in the Curiosity project since its inception more than a decade ago; she remains a team member today. Prior to serving as WPI's 16th president, Leshin spent six years as a senior leader at NASA. She joined the agency in 2005 as director of science and exploration at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In 2008 she was promoted to deputy center director for science and technology at NASA Goddard. In 2010 Leshin was tapped to join NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., the organization responsible for future NASA human spaceflight activities.