KDSL Global recently had an opportunity to connect with Saki Milton, Founder of The GEMS Camp. The GEMS Camp, launched in summer 2010 as a free 6-week Saturday camp, preparing urban girls in grades 7 through 9 to be well-rounded, confident, and ready for college and beyond. Since its inception, The GEMS Camp has been instrumental in inspiring more than 200 girls in STEM studies and is hosted annually at The University of North Texas at Dallas.
What was your inspiration to work in STEM?
As a secondary mathematics classroom teacher, every year I saw 1-2 kids in each class who actually wanted to learn. They were focused, studious, hard-working, and hungry for a challenge. Unfortunately, with the challenges many teachers like myself face in an urban classroom, those students are typically the ones who end up getting shafted. Large classroom sizes, disrespect, and lack of resources are issues an urban teacher faces on a daily basis. I know I did. My heart broke every time I saw a girl who reminded me of myself as a student, but wasn’t getting the quality education that every child should receive because I was too busy dealing with classroom management or catching up those who were 1-2 grade levels behind. Going home every night knowing that I wanted to do more led me to action.
In 2010, I was teaching at an IB school. I was so moved by my students’ personal projects that I decided to explore my own summer project to give back to those students in my neighborhood. That’s when I started The GEMS Camp. I started The GEMS Camp for the girls who are ridiculed for being smart. Girls who do everything they’re supposed to do, but have to stay in their environments just because they don’t have anywhere else to go. I wanted to give them what was given to me – a quality learning experience that made me curious about the world and compassionate about others in a safe environment. Over the years, my interest in STEM has grown as demands for the workforce have changed. I’ve realized the significance of preparing students for jobs of the future, especially problems facing the environment or those with disabilities.
I believe that the shortages in STEM fields can be filled by preparing more women, which currently account for about 13% of the U.S. STEM workforce. To do so, we need to prepare girls with knowledge and skills but also equip them with confidence to be successful in such fields. My involvement in the community led me to combine my background, experience and passion into forming a nonprofit organization. I encourage teachers to find ways to explore their talents and interests beyond the bell.
Tell us about the GEMS Camp
The mission of The GEMS Camp (Girls interested in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science) is to build confidence in urban teen girls in grades 7-12 through five core areas called the 5 Karat Gems – Academics, Career, Creativity, Leadership, and Service– so that they will be successful in STEM studies and careers. The Organization’s vision is to change the trajectory of generational poverty for underrepresented girls’ families.
We teach girls how to be CREATIVE thinkers and communicators – a valuable life skill to help them break away from the pack. They learn LEADERSHIP strategies through a one-of-a-kind, research-based curriculum addressing specific needs of urban girls. Third, girls participate in SERVICE to help them internalize the value of giving back to a greater cause. The camp also prepares girls through ACADEMICS by using rigorous and engaging lessons and experiments led by highly qualified instructors. And finally, The GEMS Camp addresses CAREER opportunities to its participants by inviting local, successful STEM women to speak about their professions and personal backgrounds.
The program started in 2010 as a Saturday day camp servicing 30 rising 7th-9th-grade girls held at a public library in Dallas, Texas. Since 2017, the model has evolved to a one-week residential Summer Experience program held at the University of North Texas at Dallas. The program concludes with a Graduation Ceremony and Community Exhibition, recognizing girls for completion and achievements throughout the program. The GEMS Camp continues to gain momentum reaching more students while maintaining authenticity to its mission. To date, we have served roughly 400 girls, exposing them to more than 30 North Texas female STEM professionals representing major corporations and organizations such as IBM, Atmos Energy, Frito Lay/Pepsico, Mary Kay, Inc., Hilti, Texas Instruments, HKS Architects and more.
One of our greatest accomplishments is the expansion of our mission to include helping girls build global STEM networks through travel. In June 2018, eight high school girls traveled to Italy (Naples, Rome, and Florence) to explore the “M” in STEM, studying geometric concepts of ancient and modern architecture, technology, and engineering. June 5-15, 2019, ten girls will have the opportunity to participate in a culture exchange in the United Arab Emirates (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) with local female STEM girls, while the Dallas camp will be held, June 21-28, 2019.
What do you see as the future of STEM?
To address the whole child, The GEMS Camp program design is rooted in the latest STEM education research, primarily STEM Learning Ecosystems (SLE’s)and incorporates best practices for bringing minority and low-income girls into the STEM career pipeline. In the future, I foresee STEM education headed more down this path based on reports I’ve read. The phrase STEM learning ecosystem has emerged from early works of human development research. SLE models include children at the center influenced directly by other people (e.g., family, friends) and settings (e.g., schools, neighborhoods) and indirectly by their environment and culture. Students shape and influence their environment and narrative via connections with other learners, community representatives, and the broader scope of world culture. I believe more funding will shift towards collaborative partnerships that are operating with this model. The emergence of newer adaptations of STEM –STEAM and STREAM will continue to take place.
However, long-term sustainability of such concepts are dependent upon the global job market. All of the data still point to science, technology, engineering and math-based positions; not the arts – though I am a firm believer and supporter of the arts. Until we see extreme shortages and disparities in the arts, as it pertains to STEM, I am not fully convinced yet that STEM is on its way out nor STEAM has enough critical mass to sustain its current popularity. But, I could be wrong; I hope it is not a fad.
Unlike the early days of STEM where emphasis was on engineering and computer science, I do believe greater increase in the sciences –biology, environment, and chemistry — will experience tremendous growth as human impact, biological warfare, and medical care are becoming macro-economic issues for both government and private sector.
To learn more about The GEMS Camp visit:
Saki Milton is an experienced mathematics educator with more than 20 years in the education industry including adult learning, curriculum writing, coaching, market development, consulting, and most importantly eight years of classroom teaching. Passionate about STEM education, Saki is known for her extensive work in the U.S. by founding The GEMS Camp (Girls interested in Engineering, Mathematics and Science), a non-profit organization whose mission is to build confidence in girls in grades 7-10 in five core areas called the 5 Karat Gems – Academics, Career, Creativity, Leadership, and Service – so that they will be successful in STEM studies and beyond. The organization has served more than 350 girls across Texas since 2010, partnering with major STEM employers such as BP Oil, Pepsico-FritoLay, HESS Corporation, and NASA to name a few. Saki has worked for Pearson Education Middle East as the U.S. Schools Curriculum Manager, delivering educator support to American international schools across the gulf region. Today, she is an independent international educational consultant working on worthwhile edTech and publishing projects globally. Saki holds a B.A. in mathematics from The University of Texas at Austin and an M.B.A. in marketing from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.