Women to win less than a quarter of bachelor’s degrees in physics, but a group of Stanford undergraduate women are looking to change that.
Stanford’s program to inspire the next generation of women in physics (SPINWIP), a three-week virtual summer camp for high school students, aims to expose low-income, first-generation women and youth (FLI) to career opportunities in physics and STEM and is taught entirely by women.
After campus closed in March 2020, due to COVID-19, co-founder Beatriz Yankelevich ’21 read stories about the educational challenges high school students were facing with the closure of schools and summer camps. Motivated to remedy this loss of learning, Yankelevich recruited student co-organizers Amber Yang ’21 and Sophie Decoppet ’21 to create a virtual and free STEM camp for high school students, aimed at FLI students and girls. The camp, Girls in Science and Engineering Stanford Summer Program, ran for two weeks last summer and focused on general STEM education. The original program has been renamed SPINWIP for summer 2021 and will have a more physics-specific program.
Physics professor Risa Wechsler, educational advisor for SPINWIP with assistant physics professor Monika Schleier-Smith, says the under-representation of women and racial minorities in physics is “a crisis for the field.”
SPINWIP hopes to resolve this crisis by exposing students to role models. Yang explained that it can be isolating to look around a classroom and realize that you are one of the few women. That’s why representation is so important, according to Decoppet.
“I think a lot of girls in high school are intimidated by physics, and STEM subjects in general, as a potential career / study path because they don’t see people like them studying physics,” wrote Decoppet in a statement to the Daily. “The goal of SPINWIP is to reverse that expectation and showcase a wide variety of faces that work and succeed in science.”
Mirelys Mendez Pons ’25 enjoyed meeting other women scientists when she participated in the program last summer before entering Stanford.
âSTEM is mostly male dominated and being in a place where we were all girls, I wasn’t afraid to be myself or ask questions,â Pons said.
Pons also benefited from the affordability of the camp, which is free and focuses on accepting and recruiting FLI students. Although not all students will be accepted into the camp due to capacity limitations, the teaching team makes available to all applicants recordings of the lectures and copies of the worksheets in order to serve the most students. possible. Being a virtual program makes the camp more affordable and accessible for students, as they can participate while balancing other responsibilities.
âStudents were able to participate in the program while they were looking after their families or had a job or whatever,â Wechsler said.
Existing virtually also gives SPINWIP global reach. Pons participated in last year’s program from his home in Puerto Rico. According to Yankelevich, the 2021 camp already has candidates from Kenya, Egypt, Bangladesh, Mexico and Brazil. In total, last year’s program served around 80 non-binary students and expects to have a similar number of participants this year.
Besides representation and financial barriers, students may be excluded from physics programs due to a lack of exposure. Student organizers explained that many high school students born have a high quality physical education. And if the students are exposed to physics, it may not be interesting.
Yankelevich explained that students really don’t get to exciting things until they graduate well in physics: âSo the idea here is to show these kids what exciting and cutting-edge physics research looks like. an accessible way from the start. â
SPINWIP will take place in the mornings of the week with students participating in lectures and small discussion sections. Last year, the camp was run largely by volunteer undergraduate counselors. This year, SPINWIP obtained grants so that counselors can be paid. Students will spend the first half of the program learning the Python coding language and the second half applying these skills to projects in quantum computing, cosmology, and astrophysics. The camp will also host faculty and graduate students to talk to students and advise on university applications.
After last year’s program, Yankelevich realized that âthe barriers to applying to college are so much greater than I could have even imagined. The college guidance and mentorship provided during the camp was crucial for Pons, who partly credits the camp for his acceptance at Stanford.
âI was in grade 11 and didn’t even know what the SAT was, what the common application was,â Pons said.
Going forward, Yang wants SPINWIP to further foster the mentoring mentality that has helped Pons throughout the college application process. The program team also hopes to more systematically track student outcomes, according to Yankelevich, to see how camp attendance influences college student and STEM experiences.
SPINWIP is currently accepting applications for its 2021 cohort, which will end on Sunday, May 23. Student organizers are excited for the upcoming camp and hope the program will continue long after they graduate.
âThe feedback from the girls who participated last year really made me realize how much a program like SPINWIP can make a difference,â Decoppet wrote. “Even if it’s only two or three girls who end up doing physics, it’s already a huge victory!”