Oregon Tech Trek results in increased interest among girls in STEM careers

Building an app at the Oregon tech Trek camp in Tillamook.

STEM careers are among the fastest-growing and highest-paying in the United States, yet they are still dominated by men, particularly computer science (26% female) and engineering (12% female). Research has shown that females and males perform similarly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses from kindergarten through 12th grade and in college, but girls start to lose confidence in STEM around middle school.

Tech Trek was created by a branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and developed into a national AAUW program in 2013. Tech Trek serves as a model for intentionally engaging youths to expand access to career opportunities that can be adapted for other Extension programming.

Oregon State University Extension Service’s Open Campus partnered with AAUW to establish two Tech Trek sites in Oregon. Open Campus, an OSU Extension program since 2009, is a community-based education partnership that centers on career and college access and community development.

Open Campus employees are housed primarily in rural community colleges and K–12 school districts around the state to promote partnerships that address the unique educational needs of each community. The goals of Open Campus and Tech Trek align closely: to promote equitable student access to college and careers.

Extension’s Oregon Tech Trek camps are week-long residential STEM camps on a college campus with daily three-hour STEM core classes and one-hour workshops. The camps feature a one-day STEM-focused field trip, and a professional STEM women's night during which campers learn about STEM careers from women in these fields. The host campuses are Tillamook Bay Community College on the Oregon Coast and OSU-Cascades in central Oregon.

All camp volunteers must identify as women, including teachers, workshop presenters, professional STEM women's night participants, dorm monitors, and other camp staff. Studies have shown that women role models in an educational environment build girls' positive associations with STEM subjects and increase their motivation to pursue STEM careers.

Seventh-grade girls are nominated by their STEM teachers and complete an application before being selected to attend the camp. Recruitment focuses on girls from rural communities, recognizing that rural students have lower college-going rates than their suburban and urban counterparts and have less access to STEM electives and Advanced Placement courses and exams.

Since 2014, Oregon Tech Trek has served more than 250 rising eighth-grade girls from rural communities around Oregon. The campers have expressed increased interest in STEM college majors and careers following their experiences at the camp.

As the first cohort of Oregon campers graduate from high school, the program is seeing college-going rates that far exceed the state average (89% of Oregon Tech Trek alumnae compared to Oregon average of 62%), with a third of this cohort now attending Oregon State University.

In addition to these outcomes, Open Campus has partnered with more than 200 volunteers and raised more than $200,000, which provides for high-quality camps annually at a low cost ($50) to campers and to spend much of these funds in the rural communities where the camps are held.

The results of Oregon Tech Trek are published in the Journal of Extension.

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