Mina Pillsbury looked forward to applying for a counselor position at the UW-Stout Science, Technology and Engineering Preview Summer for Girls camp.
Pillsbury, a high school freshman in Oshkosh who plans to study forensic science in college, attended the five-day camp in 2017 and enjoyed the mix of recreational activities and unique learning opportunities.
This year marked the first time she qualified to work as a junior counselor and assist campers, but Pillsbury and many girls like her will have to wait at least one year for that chance. The STEPS camp was canceled this year after a complaint filed in 2019 through the Office of Civil Rights regarding the single-sex nature of the camp.
The program started hosting annual camps in 1997 and encourages middle-schoolers to learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the UW-Stout campus. It hosted four separate groups of girls for five days at a time the summer before their seventh grade and provided hands-on activities taught by professors and industry professionals.
The camp’s cancellation means more than 100 middle school girls won’t have the opportunity this summer to learn from professors and industry professionals, and it also results in a missed chance for STEPS alumni to return and work at the camp.
“We are not the only institution across the United States facing this type of challenge, but that does not make this decision any less painful,” Doug Mell, UW-Stout executive director of communications and external relations, wrote in a statement Wednesday to the Leader-Telegram.
Indeed, colleges including Boston University, the University of Cincinnati and Vermont Technical College are facing similar OCR complaints for single-sex programs. UW-Eau Claire has a one-day girls’ mathematics event and several single-sex sports camps but has not had any formal complaints regarding those programs dating back to at least fall 2006, according to the university’s affirmative action director Teresa O’Halloran.
Most people became aware of the cancellation when the STEPS program posted a message “with a heavy heart” Jan. 22 on its Facebook page announcing the camp will not be offered this summer due to the ongoing litigation. The Facebook status also noted that if a camp occurs in 2021, it will be open to girls entering seventh grade and eighth grade in order to make up for the 2020 cancellation.
Alumni and parents of campers largely expressed shock, sadness and disappointment upon hearing the news.
Pillsbury’s mother Samara Hamzé called it “heartbreaking” that other students won’t have the opportunity afforded to her daughter for at least a year. She said it was nice for middle school girls to be mentored by women in a more comfortable setting and see themselves in leadership roles.
Hamzé stressed the importance of having access to new resources and practicing new skills “in a fun, nonjudgmental environment.”
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Sarah Brenizer said the camp offered a less intimidating atmosphere for her daughter to try activities thought of as traditionally masculine, like rock climbing.
Brenizer thought the OCR complaint was “absurd” and doesn’t see the problem with single-sex camps like STEPS.
“There’s always going to be programs for boys (and) there’s always going to be programs for girls,” Brenizer said.
Her daughter Lexi Brenizer, a seventh-grader in Fredric, attended the camp in 2019. She enjoyed meeting new people and working on wiring for the Bugbot, an obstacle-avoiding robot that every camper constructed since 2013.
Like most alumni, Lexi Brenizer said the camp increased her interest in fields related to science, technology, engineering and math.
Ava Busch-Manske, an eighth-grader from Saint Anthony Village, Minn., was a camper in 2018. She is interested in studying electrical engineering in the future and enjoyed soldering wires for the Bugbot. Pillsbury said soldering was one of the best parts as well.
Busch-Manske appreciated the camp because it “levels the playing field” for girls interested in STEM careers. She enjoyed listening to different perspectives offered by counselors and instructors.
As a human resources professional, her mother Dawn Busch knew the difficulty involved in recruiting women engineers and wanted to encourage her daughter’s interests. Busch felt “disgusted” after hearing about the OCR complaint and said it is important for middle school girls to see women working in STEM careers because it lets them know they can pursue similar positions.
If the camp resumes, Busch-Manske will consider returning as a junior counselor.
The Brenizers are crossing their fingers that the STEPS program will be up and running again by the time Lexi Brenizer is eligible to be a junior counselor in two years. Sarah Brenizer also has two younger daughters who she hopes will have the opportunity to attend the camp a few years in the future.
Time will tell.