Last summer, Marie Wolbach discovered that it's cool to be a nerd. While talking with campers at one of Tech Trek's 22 nationwide math and science camps for girls, she was told by rising eighth-graders that they consider the word a compliment.
The conversation reminded Wolbach of the small yet encouraging ways that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields have changed for women since she founded Tech Trek in 1998. Each year, girls arrive to the camp for a week of hands-on STEM immersion classes with more confidence and a stronger grounding in math and science than their predecessors.
And now, some are proud to be nerds.
"It wasn't long ago that that was the biggest insult," Wolbach said.
On Thursday, Wolbach will be honored as the 2017 recipient of the Kiwanis Angel Award by the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto for her founding and expansion of Tech Trek. Although Wolbach has received several national honors, including the Jefferson Award and Traditional Home Magazine's Classic Woman Award, this is the first local organization to recognize her work.
The camp, a program of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), has reached over 15,000 girls across 10 states for more than 20 years. Although its purpose is to make STEM fields fun and accessible to middle school girls through experiential courses, discussions with women in STEM and local field trips, Wolbach believes that its unspoken purpose is leadership.
Tech Trek supervisors are particularly conscious of creating an inclusive environment for campers from low-income backgrounds, a group that Wolbach says has a strong presence in the program. The camp remains completely free aside from a $50 waivable administrative fee.
"When the girls arrive from remote places and they're talking to girls who have just been to Washington, D.C. on a field trip, they have a little trouble at first feeling that everybody is on equal footing, and we have to keep reassuring them," Wolbach said. "But by the end of the week, they've made lifelong friends -- and that's really true. There are women at graduate school at Chicago and Stanford who are still good friends and find a way to get together."
Wolbach often receives emails from former campers expressing their gratitude, or simply wanting to share stories. One woman, who had been miserable as a finance major in college, switched to geology after discovering her Tech Trek journal in her parents' storage. She had forgotten how much she enjoyed the outdoor activities of the camp.
"Truly sometimes there's tears in my eyes, and absolutely I feel it was worth about 22 years of work," Wolbach said of receiving such correspondence. "You only have to affect a few girls to know that you've done something that was worth your time, and now that we've affected about 15,000 -- that's just an unbelievable result."
Tech Trek will receive a gift of $1,500 from the Kiwanis Club, and funds raised at the reception will go towards the Kiwanis Club's community projects and grants. Tickets are available at kiwanisangelaward.org.
Marie Wolbach is the mother of current Palo Alto City Councilman Cory Wolbach.