Several years ago, when Oak Park filmmaker Rise Sanders-Weir came across a New York Times article profiling Triton College’s Camp GADgET (Girls Adventuring in Design, Engineering & Technology) — a four-day-long summer camp designed to introduce a few dozen girls between the ages of 12 and 16 to hands-on manufacturing — she filed the camp away as a “project to think about.” 

But when she ended up landing a teaching position at the community college, a series of events led her to train her lens on the camp. After making a connection with its director, Sanders-Weir decided to film the camp’s participants in 2013. 

The veteran documentarian — who has directed, produced and written nonfiction films that appeared on A&E, History Channel and National Geographic — said the film was made possible through in-kind donations and her own personal funds. Students in her digital video class filled some crew positions while she relied on her network of professional peers for help in the editing room. 

She spent some months in post-production before finally screening the roughly half-hour finished product at Triton last December. It’s the first installment of what Sanders-Weir hopes is a series of films that track the lives of girls who were filmed in the 2013 camp.

“I want to keep following them,” she said. “They’re in high school now and they’re starting to make decisions about colleges and majors and careers. So the plan is to continue following them as they move forward in their lives.” 

She wants to see if any of the girls ultimately pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) sectors or go in other directions — much in the way she did when she was younger. 

“I was interested in science as a girl and then somewhere along the way I got diverted,” she recalled. “Probably in the way most girls and women are diverted, but I did find my way back in graduate school.” 

“The young girls between 12 and 14 are pretty confident about themselves in terms of their mathematical abilities [and] in terms of school, but then something happens,” said Joi-Lynn Mondisa, the camp’s assistant director, during one segment of the film. 

“With the older girls, I think it’s a [heightened] awareness of the environment that they’re in and this affects their academic abilities as well as their own perceptions of themselves.”

According to the U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, in 2014 women made up about 24 percent, 36 percent and 18 percent of the workforce in the country’s engineering, computing and advanced manufacturing fields — despite being a little more than half of the nation’s population. 

Sanders-Weir said one possible reason for the gender gap struck her while she was filming. She said the girls all brought “their own ideas” to the camp, but there was a visible difference in enthusiasm between the younger and older girls.

The younger girls [in the sixth and seventh grades] were very gung-ho talking about their experiences in STEM classes in school; they were very much following their interests. It was internal. It was all about what brought them excitement and joy,” she said. 

“But the girls in the upper end, in the eighth grade, were starting to feel peer pressure. They begin to think, ‘Well, if I’m in a classroom with only one or two girls, I’m not going to talk or engage as much.’ One girl in the film said, ‘If I show interest in this, maybe boys won’t like me.’ That was interesting.”

She didn’t say when exactly she’d resume filming, but Sanders-Weir noted that she’s currently looking to get the film played in other places around the country, particularly at film festivals.

The film resonates for her on a personal level. She has a 10-year-old daughter who attends school in District 97, which she said “has the best environment that can be offered” for students in STEM. But she noted that one school district’s exemplary environment may not be enough to take on a culture.

“She’s still in that phase where everything is exciting and anything she feels she wants to do she can reach out and grab. I’d like to believe that will stay with her for her whole life, but I also know what can happen between ages 10 and 15.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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