Until last week, Courtney Thompson had never really thought about how M&Ms are made. But then she watched an experiment by scientists from IBM who used the candy to illustrate ideas behind quality-control testing.
And now, the 16-year-old from Apple Valley thinks project management is "pretty cool."
"Do you know which kind of M&M has the fewest defects?" she asked. "It's yellow. But I like the brown ones."
Thompson, who has Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is one of 30 middle-school-aged girls who are in Bloomington for parts of a camp, ending this week, that promotes science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for girls with disabilities.
The camp, organized by PACER, a Bloomington-based organization that advocates for children and young adults with disabilities, is supported by heavyweights in the business world such as Target, 3M, IBM, Accenture and Medtronic. Engineers and scientists from those companies spend the day with campers, leading them through such activities as building bottle rockets and robots.
The free camp is part of a broader national push to spark girls' interest in science, a career field that has historically been dominated by men. In fact, only 7 percent of all electrical and mechanical engineers are women, according to the most recent federal statistics.
"Exposing girls to science, technology, engineering and math is important because we need to have high expectations for all children, and that's particularly true for children with disabilities," said Paula Goldberg, PACER's executive director.
The EXITE (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) camp, in its 10th year, draws girls from all over Minnesota. This year, some of the participating campers have physical impairments, autism, ADHD, Down syndrome, or who are visually impaired or have hearing deficiencies.
Many girls, camp leaders say, are enrolled in mainstream classes in school and rarely interact with others who have similar disabilities. As a result, many immediately click while at camp, forming lasting relationships. PACER organizes opportunities throughout the year for the girls to continue to get together.
Goldberg said one camper's parents told her that until their daughter attended the EXITE camp, she had never been invited to a birthday party.
"But after she left camp, the other girls started calling her," Goldberg said.
Since Matti Christopherson started camp last week, she can't stop talking about the friends she's made, said her mother, Tracie. And since Matti, who has Crohn's disease and a serious metabolic disorder, has been bullied in the past, that's incredibly meaningful, she said.
"It's so nice, because they really get her here," Christopherson said. "Every girl in the room has been through something. As a parent, I can't tell you how much it means to be able to drop off your child at camp and not worry about them. It's just so rare."
"I really feel like I fit in here," said Matti as she glued feathers on a bottle rocket.
Many of the scientists who volunteer their time at the EXITE camp have a connection to someone with a disability.
Kate Bretscher, a manager in 3M's electronics markets material division, has a son with Down syndrome. She says she sees science as a great activity for a person with a disability because it can tap so many senses.
"I think we have to take the elitism out of science and focus on what it really is — extreme experimental learning," she said.
On Friday, Bretscher and other 3M scientists taught the girls how to make bottle rockets and then launched them, competing for both distance and accuracy.
She mentored a team of girls who dubbed themselves "The Fluffy Unicorns." One of them, Izzy Blanchard, made two rockets — one that looked like a bumblebee and another that was green and pink and bore the camp's name.
"It's just the first thing I thought of," she said of the bumblebee rocket.
Thompson also made sure there was ample bling on her rocket, such as glitter and sequins. She was unsure the two would fly, but gave herself high marks in artistry.
Like a lot of the girls, she said she was dreading the last day of camp. "It brings a lot of us together," she said. "They say it's a camp for girls with disabilities. I say it's a camp for girls with disabilities who rock!"