Summer Bridge inspires young women in STEM

Geology faculty George "Paki" Stephenson inspects a rock with Summer Bridge students at Mountain Lake.
Geology faculty George "Paki" Stephenson inspects a rock with Summer Bridge students at Mountain Lake.

Seventy-one young women from across the state spent a week at Radford University exploring the wonders of science.

The Artis College of Science and Technology hosted the annual Summer Bridge Program from July 9-14 for female sophomore, junior and senior high school students. The innovative camp heavily promotes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) - fields in which women are drastically underrepresented.

According to a March 2017 U.S. Department of Labor report, while women make up nearly half of the workforce, they make up only 26 percent of STEM workers.

“It is important for us as faculty to not only introduce these young women to STEM, but encourage them to imagine working in these fields,” said Associate Professor of Geology Beth McClellan. “Radford University’s Summer Bridge program has been very successful at providing campers a solid foundation in STEM and piquing their interest.”

During Summer Bridge – which has been offered for more than a decade - students are fully-immersed in Radford University’s in- and out-of-classroom learning experiences. They are taught by current faculty, staff and students who are passionate about STEM and finding creative ways to incorporate science into daily curricula.

Campers were split into four groups based on their interests: Bits and Bots (electronics, robotics, space, math and physics); Environmental Earth Sciences (geology, mapping and unmanned aerial systems); Cybersecurity and Forensic Science and Genes; and, Molecules and Medicine (biology and chemistry).

Campers constructed robots, experimented in labs and explored different technologies. Geology professor Skip Watts taught students how to fly UAVs (drones) on the lawn outside of Reed-Curie Hall and used UAVs at Mountain Lake to map a portion of the dry lakebed.

“We have an exceptional group of young women with us this week,” Watts said. “They are eager to learn and explore.”


Watts and McClellan, along with geology faculty George “Paki” Stephenson, led the Environmental Earth Sciences group to Mountain Lake in Giles County, one of four off-campus visits by Summer Bridge participants. Other groups participated in activities at Radford University’s Selu Conservancy, Areva Nuclear Power in Lynchburg and Novozymes Biologicals in Salem.

At Mountain Lake, 16 campers were split into four teams. Each team investigated and reported on the geology of a different site, including two quarries. They carried journals, buckets, protective glasses and other tools with which they used to explore their discoveries. They documented site descriptions and rock outcrop characteristics, including layer thickness, vertical and horizontal structures and slope angles. To ascertain what types of rock they were observing, they tested each sample with a small drop of acid.

A favorite activity was using hammers to bust open rocks. The action wasn’t a stress-relief activity - although many commented on its therapeutic value.

“Take out all your frustrations on it,” a camper said, cheering on the first female to give the hammer a shot.  

After a few fervent blows of the hammer and some huffing and puffing, the rock burst open. Once broken apart, the teams inspected the fragments carefully, looking for fossils, quartz and other clues.

Of the many successful rock busters was Alexis Putney, a senior from Newport News. Putney was a return camper, having participated in the 2016 Summer Bridge cohort.

“I love the hands-on activities, especially up here at Mountain Lake,” Putney said. “I look forward to learning more about how Earth used to be and how it is now.”

Putney is considering a career in marine biology and said Radford University will definitely be on her list of college choices.

“Summer Bridge is a great college experience, and I was really excited to come back this year,” Putney said. “The professors are so nice, and they get to know you one-on-one. It’s a great school…a beautiful campus,” she added.

Camper Sarah Myers, a sophomore from Alexandria, said she had met a lot of new friends at Summer Bridge.

“It’s like a camp, but there is a lot of learning involved,” she said.

Myers said studying rocks has always been a hobby of hers, and she was excited to share in that geologic passion with others.

Current Radford University students also play a big role in Summer Bridge. Rising junior Michaela May was one of two teaching assistants (TAs) who traveled with the Mountain Lake group. Summer Bridge has had a major impact on her life, May said. A double major in geology and anthropology, May was a camper herself in 2013. The experience was so inspirational that she decided to return to Radford University, this time as a student.

“I ended up having so much fun. It left a good impression on me and immediately put Radford on the radar,” May said.

May acknowledged the low percentage of women in the STEM fields.

“But that’s changing,” she said. “More and more women are working in the science and technology fields every day, especially here at Radford. It’s inspiring to see.”

Volunteering with Summer Bridge this summer was just one way May said she could say “thank you” for the life-changing experience.

 “To work beside these awesome professors and give back to other young women…that’s the reason why I’m here," she said.

Donors and sponsors of Summer Bridge are:

  • ATK
  • Areva Nuclear Power
  • BAE Systems
  • Dr. Cliff Boyd and Dr. Donna Boyd
  • EQT
  • Jessie Ball duPont Fund
  • RU Alumna Ms. Dale Lee
  • Lynchburg Community Trust
  • Novozymes Biologicals
  • Project Discovery
  • Harry and Zoe Poole Foundation
  • Upward Bound Martinsville


Jul 19, 2017
Mary Hardbarger
(540) 831-5150