An immersive, social STEM camp for middle school girls inspires interest and confidence in STEM

Live-action role-playing (LARP) combined with social wearable technology, body-worn materials that are computationally coded and capable of supporting social interactions, provides a high-impact social activity for young girls and engages them in technology and computing.

The Social Wearables Educational Live Action Role Play (SWEL) Camp funded by an NSF grant awarded to Katherine Isbister, Professor of Computational Media Social Emotional Technology Lab (SET Lab)was developed by UCSC researchers to combine social experiences with computing activities to encourage girls’ interest and confidence in pursuing technical subjects.

“There’s a lot of core research going on to give girls and women the power to solve social problems through technology,” Isbister explained. “Interest in computation is greater when girls are able to develop technology to solve problems that are important and relevant to them.”

The camp aims to build an inclusive computing community that focuses on girls and welcomes people from historically underrepresented communities.

“One of the key design ideas behind the camp is to close the gap between introducing a technical concept and making something fun out of it,” said James Fey, Ph.D. Student and SET Lab researcher.

The five-day program incorporates elements of design, coding, acting, and the mystery genre to create a fictional story arc and role-playing format in which participants must develop wearable technologies that support social interactions necessary for the completion of a range of tasks and… activities are required.

With COVID-19 restrictions encroaching on us over the past two years, SWEL camp is just the right vehicle to curb pandemic fatigue among young students.

Narratives, wearable technologies and social experiences

The title of the camp’s narrative is Anywear Academy, with an emphasis on the word “Wear” because participants must program and wear the technology they design in order to complete missions. For example, one segment of the camp asks students to code their wearables to give them the same LED lighting color as their teammates. Once they have done that, they can move on to the next task.

Over the course of five days, camp participants “travel” to three different worlds: a fairytale world, a superhero vs. villain world, and a space world. Each world presents a different story with a different set of mysteries to solve.

Students use a combination of wiring tools and basic coding programming languages ​​to create wearable technology. Pieces produced in the last two camps included LED lights and wired materials that were worn around the participants’ necks and waists and also acted as costumes, enhancing the immersive LARP experience.

“The students shaped their experiences over time, becoming fictional characters and solving problems as a team,” Isbister said.

Students are encouraged to take home the materials they designed at camp and are given various resources to guide them in crafting and programming their own technology after camp is complete.

The first session of SWEL camp was held in Berkeley last summer, and the nonprofit organization The Game Academy– which runs LARP courses and camps for children aged 8 to 18 to enrich social, emotional and academic success – was a major contributor to its design and implementation. UCSC researchers began collaborating with Game Academy in 2020 to learn how to integrate their expertise in social wearable technologies into a LARP environment to create an immersive, fictional narrative for camp attendees to experience.

The second session started in February this year over two weekends Digital NESTwhich brings together 13 middle-aged students from local Salinas and Monterey schools.

UCSC plans to conduct two sessions of SWEL Camp this summer, one in coordination with The Game Academy and the other on campus by the UC Santa Cruz Educational Partnership Center (EPC) Program for Girls in Engineering. The EPC oversees UC Santa Cruz Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) programwith whom the researchers worked closely to secure locations for the camp and to recruit girls from other programs hosted by Baskin Engineering, such as Engineering Girl. Both internal and external partnerships were crucial to the success of the first two camps.

Key Findings and Future Directions

The camp provides students with a variety of soft and hard skills, including group communication, collaboration, problem solving, technical design, coding, and user experience design. It was set up to become a use case for other institutions and organizations to adopt and run themselves.

Unlike traditional afternoon programs and summer camps that have a single focus, this program has diverse aspects and helps attract a diverse group of students.

“Because this camp spans a broad web of activities, interests and genres, it meets many students who would otherwise have fallen through the cracks in more traditional programs,” Fey said.

The ultimate goal of the NSF-funded project is “to create a sustainable makerspace camp that various institutions and organizations can adopt,” Isbister explained.

Upon completion of the summer sessions, UCSC researchers hope to provide materials, best practices, and successful use cases for schools, nonprofits, and others to implement the program and advance efforts to bridge the gender and diversity gap in technology and computing.

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