Northwest Arkansas girls will have a chance to learn about flying up close and personal next summer.
The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., will expand its She Can STEM Summer Camp to Thaden Field in Bentonville for two weeks. The Smithsonian has held a two-week camp, actually two consecutive one-week camps, in Chantilly, Virginia, the past two summers.
Thaden Field is a perfect site since it is named after Louise Thaden, an aviation pioneer and a member of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
The museum said the pilot program — its pun, not mine — will be for three years. It will be funded, as the Virginia camps have been, by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
The museum said the Walton Family Foundation grant was awarded at the urging of Steuart Walton, the grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton. For those who don’t know, Steuart Walton is, in addition to being a cycling enthusiast, a pilot and the co-founder of Game Composites in Bentonville.
Game Composites builds aerobatic airplanes. Check out its website for more promotion videos like the one below that may make you a bit queasy.
Smithsonian officials said the camp isn’t just about recruiting the next generation of airplane pilots, although that wouldn’t be a bad outcome. The museum said the participation of women in STEM career fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — has plateaued recently and it is important to expose young girls to possibilities they may not know about.
The Smithsonian said 24% of aerospace jobs are held by women, who (obviously) make up half the population. Only 5% of airline pilots are women.
The camp is for girls from low-income families in grades six-eight (approximately 11 to 13 years old). The Walton Family Foundation grant will pay all the girls’ expenses.
“We need to widen, not winnow, channels leading to STEM jobs for students of all genders, from all communities, and it needs to start much earlier than the college recruiting fair,” museum Director Ellen Stofan said when the original camp was announced. “Middle school is a critical time to engage students around STEM topics. It is a time when students start to consider career options, and the opinions they form at this age will be carried through their years of higher learning.
“We also know that girls at this age are most engaged when working collaboratively and getting to know female role models that show them what they can achieve. Unfortunately, this is also the age at which many girls become discouraged from pursuing STEM topics, even when they excel in the classroom.”
The museum said its first two camps filled spots for 60 students each summer. The Bentonville camp is scheduled for 60 participants and will be a good indicator of the initiative’s scalability.
“It has been a great success,” said Alison Mitchell, deputy director of communications at the museum. “The girls learn a ton; they get great experiences where they couldn’t otherwise.
“We are determining how big and how far we can take it. We want to see how the success is with this one.”
Previous camps have let students use a flight simulator, do indoor skydiving and take actual flights with an instructor. The camp will also let girls take a tour of Bentonville’s municipal airport and visit the Fort Smith Regional Airport and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art among other activities.
Most importantly, the girl campers will meet grown women working in the aviation industry in jobs such as air traffic control, cybersecurity and commercial aviation, the organizers said.
“There are a lot of unique experiences they can’t get in local schools,” Mitchell said. “Through aviation, we get girls who are interested in all sorts of areas. … It is a very full program.”