A small robot trundles along a 2-by-2 square taped to the floor. The programmers, who have spent the morning measuring and recalibrating the bot, watch with the intensity of professionals. However, these programmers are middle-schoolers, and their robotics expertise dates back just four days. But their robot moves along the path and executes a perfect 90-degree turn. From across the McLoughlin Middle School classroom, teacher Cyndy Hagin shouts, “Awesome, ladies! That was beautiful.” The high praise causes the programmers to beam.

For the past four years, the weeklong Girls Lead the Way summer camp has introduced sixth- through eighth-grade students from all over Vancouver to the principles and applications of designing, building and programming robots. This year’s Level 1 camp challenged students to create hydraulic arms capable of lifting objects such as wood blocks and pencils, as well as covered wiring, soldering and programming robots. In Level 2 camp, students with prior camp experience expanded their knowledge and skills and created more complex robots with Arduino controllers.

The goal is to ignite an early love of robotics—one effort to help close the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and math fields. In 2011, the Economics and Statistics Administration, analyzing Census Bureau data, reported that although the nation’s workforce is almost evenly divided between the genders, women hold less than 25 percent of the jobs in STEM fields. Moreover, the disparity has persisted throughout the past decade even as the college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.

At Girls Lead the Way, female teachers and mentors guide the nearly 40 young engineers, making the name more than a hopeful expression. At the helm are Hagin, a former teacher at McLoughlin and now robotics teacher at Vancouver iTech Preparatory, and Megan Humphrey, a chemistry teacher at Skyview High School. This year they were joined by seven high school students, all former campers.

Girls Lead the Way was mentor Ella S.’s first exposure to robotics two years ago. “The camp gives you the sense of being able to build something,” she said. That experience, and hearing mentors discuss competing on robotics teams, sparked in Ella a deeper interest in engineering. “I wanted to understand how to problem-solve. I wanted to solve things for myself,” she said.

She was accepted into Skyview’s Science, Math and Technology magnet program. In addition, she competes on Skyview’s robotics team, the StormBots. As part of the StormBots’ controls group, she wires and solders, skills she first learned in Girls Lead the Way.

Camp organizers hope that others, like Ella, will continue to study robotics in high school—and beyond. The rewards can be great. The ESA also reported that women who hold STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than their female peers in comparable non-STEM jobs. But anecdotal evidence from Girls Lead the Way suggests that the satisfaction of robotics isn’t just limited to salary potential.

Said Sarah Farley, a sixth-grader at Alki Middle School, of the camp, “I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t know it would be this much fun.”