With laughter and excitement, a group of middle school girls awaited their trip outside to the Teaching and Learning Garden at the University of Tennessee and Chattanooga for their lesson in agriculture.
They grabbed gloves on their way out to avoid breaking their nails, but they didn’t mind getting dirty as they dug through the garden and harvested potatoes.
The Agriculture and Nutrition for Girls while Encouraging Leadership (ANGELS) club, which wrapped on July 28, aimed to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lessons and empower young Black girls through a summer camp experience. With a focus on different themes each week, the ANGELS program fostered hands-on learning, leadership experience and creativity.
UTC engineering professor Dr. Sandra Affare conceptualized the ANGELS camp three years ago. While writing the first proposal to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Affare met Dr. Jose Barbosa, professor of Biology, Geology and Environmental Science at UTC, who became the program director for the camp.
After revising and submitting multiple proposals, a process Affare called a “labor of love,” she, Barbosa, collaborators Dr. Melissa Powell (Health and Human Performance) and Dr. Angelique Ramnarine (Mathematics) received $100,000 in funds.
On June 12, the ANGELS camp welcomed the girls. They participated in a wide range of activities in various disciplines—including nutrition, mathematics, biology, agriculture, engineering, computer science, recycling, leadership and art.
Friday field trips to local farms, such as Smith Berry Farm, allowed them to learn and practice agricultural methods. They even got to take home their own strawberry plants.
At Mayfield Dairy Farm, they learned about process engineering by watching the pouring and molding process of the recycled milk jugs.
Priscilla Bell, owner of Jericho Farm, taught lessons at UTC on Mondays, allowing the girls to connect what they learned when they visited the farm. One of these lessons involved collecting soil samples from the Teaching and Learning Garden and comparing them to Jericho Farm herb garden soil samples.
The camp also included guest speakers from STEM-related fields.
With the help of Dr. Keenan Dungey, the head of the UTC Department of Chemistry and Physics, the girls received several chemistry lessons.
Mechanical engineer and bridal studio owner Veatrice Conley taught the girls how to make paper dolls.
Some of the presenters were parents or family friends of the girls, such as one parent who is a cook and brought vegetables from her garden. The father of a camp counselor spoke to the girls about his career in chemistry.
There were several lessons that Affare wanted to prioritize throughout the span of the entire camp, such as nutrition and proper food choices.
“We’re not hounding on nutrition, meaning we’re not berating them on bad nutrition,” she said. “We’re going to celebrate good nutrition.”
The camp partnered with the YMCA, which provided healthy breakfast and snacks. On Fridays, they dined at local restaurants.
The girls even had the opportunity to make some of their own food. Jordan Yseth, UTC’s registered dietitian, helped them make overnight oats.
With Barbosa’s Teaching and Learning Garden, they learned about plant irrigation and used the potatoes they harvested for a fresh-cooked meal they got to take home. They chose their own portions of certain ingredients and seasonings, using their lessons in nutrition to inform their decisions and lessons in math to add fractions.
“We are strongly encouraging healthy eating, but we want them to see the difference in packaged foods and whole foods. That’s a part of their trips to the local groceries and trips to urban groceries,” Affare said.
Visiting grocery stores in urban and suburban areas taught them about accessibility to whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables. This experience taught them about food insecurity and injustice—among the concepts they learned throughout camp.
Taking a more unconventional approach to learning, the girls choreographed a dance that incorporated themes of food injustice to perform for their families on Aug. 10. They used dye sent from a local Indigo Farm to tie-dye T-shirts and make paper costumes for their performance.
Different forms of movement and exercise also were recurring activities throughout the camp, such as yoga lessons every Monday in July to teach breathing techniques to manage stress and anxiety. One week was “girls-centered” themed, which explored mental, emotional and social wellness in greater depth.
“It’s helping them look at themselves,” Affare said. “We don’t expect for them to have the advancement of sitting and dissecting your feelings but we want to introduce the ‘focus on yourself’ mindset.”
Affare said she was especially thankful for ArtsBuild, a nonprofit organization that funds art programs in Chattanooga. ArtsBuild awarded the ANGELS camp $2,500 for art lessons for the girls, including terrarium making, lip balm making and watercolor painting.
All of these and more made up the numerous activities the girls engaged in while at camp. Affare said that, early on, the lessons were more hefty—causing her to reevaluate how middle school students learned.
“A girl’s interest in STEM is based on two parts,” she said. “Whether or not what they’re doing is interesting and whether or not they see it as important.”
According to the girls, this was a success. Allison, a camper, said that she did not have an interest in STEM before the ANGELS camp, but the exposure allowed her to truly enjoy it. The girls raved about their activities, especially gardening, visiting local farms and listening to the various guest speakers.
“I liked that I got to be around other Black girls because I don’t get that too often,” Allison said.
Not only did the ANGELS camp encourage the girls to appreciate STEM, but it also instilled self-confidence and a sense of belonging as they worked alongside girls their age who share similar experiences.
“I like it because I get to be around girls who actually look like me and understand my problems,” said Rileigh, another camper.
Affare had this as a goal from the beginning.
“This is what fuels me. I want to be the change that I want to see in the world. I want to see more minorities, specifically Black females, in engineering,” she said. “I have to be that Black female in engineering that shares her experience with other Black females in hopes to increase their ability or their interest in engineering.”
Affare expressed gratitude to people across many departments at UTC who helped make ANGELS happen.
“Being a graduate of this community, I’m feeling the UTC community come together with this program and that feels good.”
This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Women and Minorities in STEM Program, Award #2022-04279.