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SJR Column: UIS Perspectives, July 2014

Summer months bring a somewhat different pace to the UIS campus. It’s a time when many students go home to a summer job while others stay on to take summer classes – accelerating their progress toward graduation. Orientation programs bring new students and their parents to campus almost weekly, many faculty are engaged off campus in research or professional development, and various construction projects are fast-tracked for completion before the opening of the fall term. But summer is also a time when one high-energy population at UIS greatly increases! I’m talking about kids – the hundreds of young people who come to UIS in summer to participate in an increasingly wide variety of summer camps.

One popular camp at UIS is Girl Tech – an innovative technology program for middle school girls. Conducted under the leadership of Computer Science instructor Mary Sheila Tracy and funded in part by gifts from the Tracy Family Foundation and Horace Mann, Girl Tech is designed to address the technology gender gap in the STEM professions – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women comprise more than half the U.S. workforce yet they play only a small part in inventing the technology of tomorrow. The problem is a “pipeline” issue – starting in middle school and continuing through college. At UIS, for example, only 53 of the 423 undergraduates currently majoring in Computer Science (about 12%) are women.

Participants in Girl Tech are immersed in creative tech topics and activities. In one session the girls make and program their own robotic companion to take home. In another they use Gimp (a scaled-down version of Photoshop) to create a design and print it on their own t-shirt. The whole idea, says Professor Tracy, is to help girls experience how much fun and how creative computing can be … and ultimately for them to see Computer Science careers as a viable and appealing option.

Youth sports camps, of course, are popular summer activities for kids and UIS Athletics offers camps including soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball and golf. UIS Head Baseball Coach Chris Ramirez, who led the Prairie Stars to a historic 28 wins and their first conference tournament appearance this year, is a big believer in youth sports camp experiences. A recent upgrading of UIS baseball facilities has helped make his camp expansion possible. “It’s part of our mission to be a resource for the people in this area,” says Coach Ramirez. “We get to work hands-on with young kids, improving their fundamentals and making lasting connections with our campers and their parents.”

The baseball program offers instructional programs for younger children (Future Stars camps), as well as an August Baseball Showcase – an opportunity for high school players who are interested in playing college ball to showcase their skills to the UIS baseball staff and other college coaches who attend.

Head Women’s Soccer Coach Molly Grisham brought a new concept in youth camps to UIS this summer – the Girls in Sports Leadership Academy. The GSLA is for high school female athletes; but rather than improving sports performance, the focus of this 3-day residential experience is on developing leadership skills not just for sports, but for all aspects of life. Student-athletes, some of whom came from as far away as Chicago and St. Louis, engaged in a variety of activities focused on topics including the characteristics of great leaders, communication skills and team dynamics. They also participated in a community service project and had opportunities to meet several former college athletes who went on to successful careers and leadership roles after college. “Young female athletes need more visible female role models,” says Coach Grisham, “so that they can emulate their style of leadership.” Feedback on the GSLA has been very positive and Coach Grisham plans to expand the camp next year.

By the middle of August, several hundred elementary and high school students will have spent time on the UIS campus participating in a summer camp. I’m glad we can be a resource for the community in this way and I like to think that at least some of those campers will be back on the UIS campus a few years down the road – pursuing their University of Illinois degree!

[A complete listing of summer youth camp opportunities is available on the UIS website at www.uis.edu.]