App Camp For Girls is far from your average summer camp. Sure, it’s a retreat where girls can have fun and make lasting friendships. There are a number of outdoor activities, such as yoga and hula hoop exercises. However, girls who attend this camp don’t view it as a reprieve from school, but are drawn by a different kind of recreation: to learn how to design and develop their very own, fully functional app.

Established in 2013 by founder Jean MacDonald and co-founder Grey Olson, App Camp For Girls is a non-profit organization that offers one-week summer programs for middle school girls, transgender & gender non-conforming youth to learn software development. With the guidance of mentors and industry leaders, the girls are introduced to the foundations of app development in a hands-on environment. The App Camp originally launched in Portland, Oregon, but also has sessions lined up in several cities within the US.

App Camp Logo

According to Executive Director Sarah Cloud, one of the motivations for creating the organization came from when MacDonald attended the World Wide Developer Conference and out of thousands of people, could not spot a single woman. MacDonald was also inspired by the Rock and Roll Camp For Girls, so she imagined organizing another unconventional camp to serve as a space where girls could discover and develop their talents in tech.

“One of the reasons we host middle schoolers at our camp is that it is the age where girls have a tendency to begin to believe that the STEM fields are not for them,” Cloud says. “We introduce them to the field and the belief that it could be a cool career for them.”

The Camp provides an intensive experience by helping girls realize that an interest in technical subjects like computer science isn’t a “Boys’ Only” club. The aim of the program is to promote gender equity in tech industries and inspire girls to have the confidence and skills to pursue a solid education in all areas of technology. As more companies are realizing that having a diverse team leads to a higher-quality product, relaying this message to girls early on is imperative.

Students working on app
Students work in teams to create an app.

Many of the girls have grown up alongside devices like smartphones and iPads, so making the central project focus on app development played to their intuitive, tech-savvy interests. Cloud explains that while some of the students already own a smartphone, the camp lends iPod Touches for the week so the students can test their work. From pitching ideas to designing app interfaces to marketing the final version, the girls work in teams and take creative control during each stage of the process.

The students incorporate interactive quizzes with titles like “Can you survive middle school?” and “What superpower do you have?” into their apps. The individual apps are then combined into a compendium which is released on the Apple App Store. Building a final product which they could relate to enables them to understand the real-world impact and visualize the possibilities of their skills.

“App development is a fun and creative way to introduce youth to the world of tech careers,” explains Cloud. “During our camp they learn how to develop an app […] learning about not just coding, but also the creative, project management, and other aspects of app development.”

Cloud says that the inclusion of role models is one of the key qualities of an effective STEAM program. The organization functions as a collaborative networking space for youth, mentors, and volunteers. Since their first session, over 200 developers and 70 mentors have lent their support to the organization. The speakers share their experiences from working in tech business, allowing the girls to see examples of successful figures who come from same or similar backgrounds.

After they “graduate” from the Camp, many of the girls return as interns to further develop their knowledge, while others go on to challenge themselves with more rigorous independent projects. One graduate has gone on to create the NW Cyber Camp. The experience they gain from the program has helped them gain an advantage over their peers, even overcoming early biases they encounter. Cloud recounts a story of another graduate who decided to join her high school’s Tech Club.

“When she walked in the room she found a group of boys who asked her what she was doing there. She said, “I spent the summer designing an app that is now for sale on the App Store. What have you done?”

The girls pitch their app to a panel.
One group presents their app “Can you survive middle school?” to the audience.

With their success, the App Camp hopes to develop non-camp activities in the future. Cloud says that they recently concluded the first year of their strategic plan, and are currently in the process of improving their programming. They’re looking to incorporate other program formats like drop-in coding events, create a year-round schedule, and expand to cities and urban areas. They hope that diversifying the programs will help them meet the high demand for the Camp.

Though the emphasis is on teaching and encouraging tech education, the organization ultimately seeks to change how young girls view their own capabilities. Not all the graduates of the Camp will choose to pursue a career in tech, but the myriad of lessons they learn participating in the program will empower their perspectives towards their academic future.

“Even if our graduates do not continue on to careers in tech, their view of what they can do is broadened. They know that they belong wherever they want to be.”

Specialized skill development programs like App Camp For Girls are exactly the kind of work that falls in line with Kadenze’s Women in STEAM initiative: women leaders investing in the educational opportunities for the next generation of girls. One of the goals of the initiative is to promote organizations like App Camp to increase accessibility to tech courses for women and girls, as well as provide a community for them to connect and advance their education.

As part of our Women in STEAM initiative, we’re offering group membership packages for Premium Memberships and Specialist Programs to organizations, businesses, and schools. Contact us for more info to learn how you can get involved.