Gathered around one of three salt water tanks at the Georgia Aquarium, a half-dozen Sweetwater Middle School Girls watched as the remotely operated vehicle they had spent the last four days working on sank, bubbles escaping from the corner of the PVC-pipe creation.

“See the bubbles — does that mean water is going in or out?” Aquarium Assistant Manager of Educational Programming Tina Oresteen asked the girls, one of whom replied “out.”

“No,” Oresteen said, gently correcting the teen. “The bubbles show air is escaping, which means water is going in.”

As the girls continued to watch their ROV, the group’s discussion turned to buoyancy, and what they could modify on the structure to keep it from sinking.

Though not your typical spring break conversation, the topic of buoyancy — and other physics phenomena — was a popular one for the 16 Sweetwater Middle School STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, Academy girls who participated in this year’s aquarium STEM camp.

The four-day camp, which was hosted by the Georgia Aquarium and funded by Lawrenceville-based Motorola Solutions Foundation, gave the girls the opportunity to get hands-on in STEM topics that also apply in everyday situations.

“Motorola really wanted to focus on STEM in young, minority females,” said Bailey Dawson, education manager for the aquarium. “This camp was an opportunity for them to see engineering, science, technology and math firsthand, and hopefully it will spark some interest in going to the field.”

The camp did more than spark the girls’ interest, though; as the preteens and teens smiled and laughed and eagerly shouted over each other during the ROV testing, their excitement was apparent.

“The point of this whole camp is to empower young ladies with engineering and physics skills,” said Diana Rodriguez, one of the camp’s instructors. “They walked in green, which is good — that’s where we wanted them. We wanted to start from nothing and build their confidence. In fact, they wouldn’t talk to us when they came in (on Monday); they were all whispers and quiet.”

Through team-building activities, special speakers from nearly every facet of the aquarium and hands-on projects, the girls slowly came out of their shells — and gained a wealth of knowledge as they did, Rodriguez said.

“(We covered) positive and negative poles, for example, and the life skills that go with it are, ‘Hey, you’re going to be driving eventually — jumper cables, those are also the same color,’” she said. “Every time we did a new skill set, we tried to apply applicable life skills for them and (emphasize) the importance of taking care of yourself and being confident, and (knowing) ‘I can do all the things that everyone else can do.’”

Twelve-year-old Esmeralda Ochoa said the camp did exactly that for her.

“I’m in a group of guys in my class, so I now know that during group projects in class I can go, ‘No, I can do that; this is my job,’” Ochoa said. “This experience has definitely made me feel more confident.”

Daniela Torres, an eighth grader, echoed Ochoa, saying the camp gave her a new appreciation for what she’s capable of.

“Learning how to do all that opened a window for me, because I never thought I was good at doing (science) stuff,” Torres said. “I was proud of myself, and I’m happy to know I can do it and it’s not something only boys can do. Being a mechanic now doesn’t sound like something I just can’t do, and it makes me feel good inside knowing I can do it. I know (now) I have a future in this type of (field).”

Crime Reporter

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.

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