A group of high schoolers come to campus to experience hands-on STEM activities and explore careers as part of the STEM Gems camp.

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Three people pour into water filtration system
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On a humid June morning, 50 students are gathered in The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design to learn how to make a water filtration system. They use everyday materials — a soda bottle and cotton balls — and watch as dirty water becomes clean. Of all the places to try the experiment on Georgia Tech’s campus, Kendeda is the ideal spot because of its focus on sustainability and the environment. 

On this day, however, the students pouring water over cotton, sand, and charcoal aren’t Yellow Jackets — at least, not yet. They’re rising ninth and 10th graders participating in an intensive experiential learning camp called STEM Gems. The program introduces girls and young women to careers and women in STEM through hands-on activities, career exploration, and mindful conversations. 

“I love the arts, but STEM is my main focus. That’s why I applied to this camp,” said Niema Spears, a rising ninth grader at Atlanta’s Coretta Scott King Young Women's Leadership Academy. “I never knew you could filter water using natural materials. It’s consistent with what I’ve seen all week: I didn’t know I could do any of this.” 

two girls look at soil in a cup

Two campers measure soil before putting it into their water filtration system. 

This is the second consecutive summer STEM Gems has chosen the College of Engineering as the best location to expose their participants to the possibilities of science, technology, engineering, and math and learn about the significant impact Georgia Tech research has in the world.  

The College supports STEM Gems because of its focus on growing the engineering pipeline of women and people from underserved communities. The program’s goals are aligned with other College-organized summer events that include the Summer Engineering Institute and the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. 

“Empowering K-12 students in Georgia with STEM education is not just about teaching science, technology, engineering, and math. It's about igniting curiosity, fostering innovation, and preparing the next generation to lead and thrive in a rapidly evolving world,” said Associate Dean Damon Williams. “STEM Gems is a premier summer camp experience for Georgia students that does just that.”

STEM Gems was created by Atlanta native Stephanie Espy, a chemical engineer-turned-entrepreneur. After seeing few women in the engineering field during her college internships, Espy wrote a book about women in STEM fields and their careers. It was aimed at middle and high schoolers and has spawned the camp, an annual summit, and a K-12 club that currently has chapters in 100 schools around the nation. 

At the camp, the students visit Georgia Tech labs, hear from faculty and admissions officers, and enjoy a series of interactive activities. On their “engineering day,” they built the water filtration system, made eco-friendly jewelry from bioplastics, and created a hidden alarm to prank their parents. “Science day” included extracting DNA from strawberries, building a terrarium and tracking map for insects, and testing forensic evidence from a hypothetical crime scene. “Technology day,” “math day,” and “my STEM journey day” rounded out the week.

The camp is free for participants because of funding from the Avantor Foundation. The grant also pays for camp facilitators, six of whom are Georgia Tech students. 

“Seeing the campers engaged in thoughtful STEM-career-focused activities and learning about women in a diverse range of STEM careers has been very rewarding for me,” Espy said. “And Georgia Tech is a natural home for our STEM Gems camp. Tech enrolls and graduates the most women engineers every year. We want our campers to be on this campus and see themselves as future students, no matter which STEM path they choose.” 

Georgia Tech is a natural home for our STEM Gems camp. Tech enrolls and graduates the most women engineers every year. We want our campers to be on this campus and see themselves as future students.


Bioengineering Ph.D. student Makala Faniel spends the majority of her summer in the biomedical engineering lab of Cheng Zhu researching cancer immunotherapy molecules and the immune system. This is the second year she took a week off to serve as a STEM Gems facilitator. 

“I participated in Project ENGAGES at Tech when I was in high school, and the program helped me figure out that I wanted to pursue materials science as an undergrad,” Faniel said. “This is a chance to give back and provide some of the same assistance others gave me when I was that age. If I had more information as a high schooler, I would have been better prepared. This program and this week allow that.” 

Tiffany Franklin said Georgia Tech was a big draw for her. She will start 10th grade at Smyrna’s Campbell High School in August and applied to the camp because she loves math and science and couldn’t pass up the chance to come to campus.  

“This week has been fun, empowering, and therapeutic. It’s a rare opportunity to bring out the nerd in me,” Franklin said. “And seeing these labs and doing these activities here at Georgia Tech makes everything seem so official.” 

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Similar Initiatives

Summer Engineering Institute

The College’s Summer Engineering Institute also invites high schoolers to campus for a taste of college life. 

Summer Undergraduate Research Experience

The SURE program allows college students from across the nation to spend 10 weeks on campus working in Georgia Tech labs. 

Facilitator and student looking at water filtration system

Bioengineering Ph.D. student Makala Faniel works with camper. 

students looking at books

In addition to hands-on activities, the camp allows time for conversations about STEM careers and role models. 

group of adults wearing STEM Gems shirts

STEM Gems leader Stephanie Espy (green shirt, middle) selected six Georgia Tech students to help run the camp.