What is this SPICE thing you keep talking about?

This is a blog about girls and science and what can be done to better support girls in science. Posts will vary between informational, practical, and theoretical discussions. Hopefully these posts will all be at least somewhat entertaining and more than somewhat useful/insightful. In a lot of posts I have/will reference the SPICE program. So it seemed worthwhile to spend a little time providing some context for what I’m talking about. 

What does SPICE stand for? Well, honestly, we came up with the acronym [1] and made words to fit . . . so nothing? But if you want to be technical it’s the Science Program to Inspire Creativity and Enthusiasm. Which is a huge mouthful, so just call it SPICE.

So what is SPICE? At its core, SPICE is a university-based program that provides science summer camps for middle-aged girls. This is nothing ground breaking. Lots of other higher ed institutions, professional organizations, and not profits provide STEM outreach targeted at underrepresented groups. These types of interventions run the gamut, but typically, they focus on a particular discipline and try to 1) increase awareness of this discipline as an area of potential study and careers, and 2) introduce participants knowledge in the discipline area. Some of the programs provide multiple points of contact with participants, but most are fairly off and on. 

Here’s where SPICE is different. 

Structurally, SPICE is fairly unique among STEM outreach programs. SPICE offers three cohort based thematic camps. What this means functionally, is that girls join the program the summer following 5th grade to attend the Discovery camp. They return the next summer for the Forensic Investigating Camp. The final summer is Maker Camp. So the program remains in contact with girls for a three year period. Many graduates return to volunteer with the program as Junior Minions [2]. Descriptions of the general content of each camp can be found below.

The biggest difference between SPICE and other programs, however, is not the content but what goes on “under the hood.” SPICE is a generalist program, curriculum shifts over time with the interests of campers, instructors, and the director [3]. What remains the same, year to year, is the instructor training and program guidelines. As I’ve noted in other posts, achievement is not the reason girls and women are not persisting in STEM. The big causes are rooted in lack of access to STEM experiences that develop the psychosocial building blocks for STEM motivation: identity, interest, self-efficacy, expectancy value, attitudes, and mindsets.  SPICE is designed to fill that gap by providing girls hands on STEM activities presented in a fashion that supports motivational development. 

Instructors are introduced to basic motivational theories and provided guidance on how to practically implement science in a way that fosters identity formation, self-efficacy, and interests. The SPICE model has been refined over the course of a decade and provides instructors with concrete rules for how to provide high quality science experiences. Below, you can see a logic model of the program design.

Logic Model2.jpg

 Crazy, I know, but researchers, particularly program evaluators, LOVE logic models. They go Gaga for logic models. In the table below, you can see actual information provided to instructors on how to lead science activities to maximize motivation. Note these are concrete, observable, measurable actions. 

3_Table 1 SPICE Model.png

Which brings us to the next point. Most STEM outreach is pretty haphazard. For example:

  • Professor Smith invites the children in his own kids classroom to come for a lab tour. 

  • Young faculty trying to beef up their resumes and have something to write in the “broader impacts” sections of their research proposals host school day off workshops. 

  • Parents and scout leaders invite students from the local student American Chemical Society group to present a workshop to their troop. 

 The types and quantities of these activities vary greatly, but they tend to have one thing in common. No one actually evaluates them. Typically, the only programs that receive any evaluation attention are those with large program grants with accountability to a sponsor (which is to say, very few). Many of the better funded programs are targeted to high school school students and have large college readiness components. It’s these college prep aspects that are often the focus of the research. Measures of motivational impact tend to be limited to a few pre post questions about the participants interest in a career in the particular discipline of focus.

 The really frustrating thing about all of this is that the vast majority of outreach, which accounts for countless hours and resources go largely, if not completely unexamined. Most fizzle after a few years, or even a few sessions [4].

Our goal with the SPICE program has been to make something enduring, effective, and measurable. The program has been in operation since 2008. Since 2013 [5], the I've been measuring campers motivation for science using, surveys, observations, focus group interviews, and in depth individual interviews. This research has focused primarily on:

  • Collecting and analyzing evidence of how that program is (or isn’t) working to support girls in building identities as future scientists.

  •  Learning from girls how they need to be supported in science.

What I find, generally, is a pretty profound gap in what girls think of as “real” science and the science they are learning in school. I’ve also found that SPICE does have a measurable impact on girls motivational profile (I call it affinity) for science. 

Let me clarify, I do research on girls motivation for science, but I don’t think how girls form science identities and interests is any different than that of boys. In fact, I’ve spent a good deal of time compiling evidence that the notion of a “girls” way of doing science is bunk. Girls have lots of different ways of doing and relating to science (I’ll get into this more in later posts). I’d bet dollars to donuts, that the types of science identities I’ve identified in girls are also present in boys. The part where gender becomes relevant is how these nascent science identities play out differently socially between boys and girls.

There are a lot of moving parts that go into a program like SPICE and I’ll cover some of these in more detail in later posts. For now, I’ll summarize the program with the following bullet points

  • SPICE practices are based in motivational theories that have been operationalized into clear guidance for how to foster a love of science in participants

  • SPICE is committed to researching and evaluating program impacts

  • SPICE targets middle school aged girls, as early adolescence is a key time in motivational (particularly identity) development

Camp Descriptions

SPICE consists of three signature camps which run in two session in each summer.

Discovery Camp(rising 6th and 7th graders)

Campers spend two weeks running (sometimes literally) from one activity to the next doing all sorts of crazy, fun, hands on lessons . . . and amassing sweet-sweet data. Campers are given their own lab notebook to decorate and doodle, and document. The camp culminates in a final Amazing Science Race where the girls have to use what they’ve learned through their time at SPICE to complete challenges and win fuzzy prizes. They think they’re just having fun, but really, their learning good experimental skills and data collection techniques.

Forensic Investigation Camp(rising 7th and 8th graders)

If Discovery Camp is about data collection, Forensic Investigation Camp is about data analysis. Campers learn a host of forensic investigation techniques from identifying mystery substances, to interrogating witnesses, to processing archeological sites. They learn not just how to carry out tests, but how to assemble data from multiple sources to put together a compelling, fact-bases story of what happened before they arrive on the scene.

Maker Camp (rising 8th & 9th graders)

Formerly Pinball Camp, Maker camp introduces fundamental principles of design, engineering, and logic using programmable Arduino microcontrollers. Girls carry out a number of projects that employ creativity, scientific design, and computer code to achieve a goal. Campers are introduced to circuits and learn how to use power sources, resistors, transistors, diodes, motors, servos, and LEDs to create games and objects that delight. Particular emphasis is placed on making computer science and engineering, two areas in which girls and women are the most underrepresented, accessible and relatable to campers lived experiences.


[1] We tried a whole bunch of other acronyms out in a truly mind bending series of emails that shall forever remain buried three folders deep on an old hard drive. Suffice it to say, I’m really glad our name is SPICE not SPANK, SPUNKY, SPINK, or SPAM.

[2] I want it to be known that I used the term “minion” to describe my henchpersons long before Despicable Me.

[3] This is based on a vast store of anecdotal evidence. The fun thing about documenting how many outreach efforts fizzle is that part of the reason they fizzle is lack of documentation. So you have to take my word for this one [4].

[4] Tautology! Gotta love it!  

[5] There small attempts to evaluate the program from the very start, but they consisted mostly of “customer satisfaction” style questionnaires that were used to evaluate which activities campers liked. It wasn’t until 2013 that we got serious about the research.