Traveling during the summer is a fun way for many high school students to spend the time off school.
It was no different for local teens Ruby Rios and Meg Schwartz, but summer travels didn’t involve a trip to an out-of-state amusement park for these two high school seniors.
Instead, it meant continuing their education half-a-world away.
Rios, who attends Bishop Miege in Roeland Park, and Schwartz, who attends Notre Dame de Sion in Kansas City, traveled to Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa, for two-and-a-half weeks this summer.
Both young women were selected to take part in the WiSci STEAM Camp, a partnership between the U.S. Department of State and private-sector partners. WiSci stands for Women in Science.
The goal of the camp is to empower high school girls and pique their interest in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics together with art.
Ruby and Meg were two of 100 girls between the ages of 15 and 18 who were chosen to participate from a field of 1,100 applicants.
Twenty of the girls came from the United States with the rest coming from six different countries in Africa.
To say the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Rios and Schwartz would be an understatement.
“I was thrilled to have this opportunity,” Schwartz said. “It was my first time to travel outside the country, and I was excited to do that with girls my age.”
Rios added, “I never thought that, as a high school student in Missouri, that I would be friends with girls from all over the world. But I developed friendships that will last the rest of my life.”
During the camp, the young women learned about technology topics — including coding, programming, and engineering — from speakers who work for well-known companies in the tech industry, such as Google and Intel.
All of the girls chosen for the WiSci STEAM Camp were identified as leaders in their community.
For Rios, that leadership comes in many forms.
“I’ve started two Girls Who Code Clubs, one at my high school and one with the KC STEM Alliance,” she said. “I’m also a member of my school robotics team and have been a part of the Women’s Foundation Girls Leadership Program in Kansas City. I also worked with friends to found the group KC STEMinists.”
While in Malawi, Rios’ leadership skills were put to good use.
At the end of the camp, the girls worked together in groups of four to develop a project that would positively impact Africa.
For Rios and her group, that meant tackling the problem of trash piles in Ethiopia, where large piles of refuse have fallen and killed more than 110 people. The improper disposal of trash there also has resulted in contaminated soil and water, which has led to the spread of disease.
Along with her group, Rios rolled up her sleeves and got to work on a technological solution to the problem.
“Our group worked on an app and website that would explain to people how, where, and why to properly dispose of their trash,” she said.
A problem of a different kind brought Schwartz and her fellow WiSci campers together. Her group focused on the problem of malnutrition and unemployment.
They came up with an idea to teach and encourage people in Malawi to cultivate raised gardens, so they could grow healthy food for their families and then sell any leftovers.
The group built an app to help track the progress of the project. They even had the opportunity to present their idea to the First Lady of Malawi, Gertrude Maseko.
The project really opened Schwartz’s eyes to how people live in other parts of the world.
“Listening to the problems they face in their communities has really transformed how I think of their issues and how I can advocate for them,” she said.
Like Rios, Schwartz was chosen to participate in the WiSci STEAM camp because of her strong academic record coupled with her extracurricular activities.
Schwartz is the president of her school’s National Honor Society; editor-and-chief of her school newspaper; and president of her Girls Up Club, which is part of a United Nations campaign to promote the education and leadership among girls in developing countries.
Both Rios and Schwartz are strong believers in empowering other young women to consider STEAM fields and plan to pursue careers in technology after college.
“I think the most exciting part of science and technology is the way it really changes the world,” Schwartz said. “Any development in world progress involves science and technology.”
Rios was thrilled for the chance to see how technology can make an impact firsthand and hopes the experience will make a difference in places like Malawi.
“Opportunities like this don’t come to every girl,” she said. “But I hope that every girl gets the opportunity to hear that she is capable of working in the STEAM field.”