Penn Engineering’s Camp for Girls Grows, Adds Math Classes

PHILADELPHIA — In a ceremony in Levine Hall’s Wu and Chen Auditorium on Aug. 3, the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania graduated its latest class: 70 girls entering the 7th, 8th and 9th grades.

The graduates were students at GEMS -- Girls in Engineering, Math and Science -- a weeklong summer camp.

Penn has led the program since 2008, adding new subjects — and students — annually. New for this year were a dedicated robotics track for the youngest girls and a series of math classes taught by Robert Ghrist, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor.

One such class involved a “symmetry safari.” Starting with a brief rundown of the kinds of symmetry patterns they would likely come across around the Penn campus, Ghrist then challenged the class to search and photograph the most interesting examples they could find. Led by Ghrist; Michele Grab, the director of Advancing Women in Engineering and GEMS; Ashleigh Thomas, a senior in electrical engineering; and Radmila Sazdanovic, a researcher in the math department who creates symmetry-laden mathematical art, small groups of girls ventured out to bag their game.   

Ghrist’s group first stop was a walkway between Hayden Hall and the Towne Building, where the pattern of square flagstones initially seemed to be a candidate. But something was amiss.

“It looks like they jimmied in some irregular stones to make it fit,” Ghrist said. “Symmetry fail!”

Other stops on the tour included a chain fence and several architectural features of the Penn Museum’s courtyard, but a manhole cover’s braided pattern was perhaps the rarest symmetry on the trip.

“Symmetry win!” Ghrist said.  

Developed by Penn’s Advancing Women in Engineering program, the camp’s outreach to girls is an attempt to balance the continuing gender disparity in engineering and math careers. It also plugs into what has become an increasingly hot issue on the national agenda: science, technology, math and engineering, or STEM, education. President Obama has proposed a $1 billion program to train teachers in those fields.   

If recent history is any indication, GEMS is on the leading edge of that trend.

“The interest in the program has grown each year,” Grab said. “This was our largest class to date, but we still have many more applicants than we have spots.”