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OnCUE Archive - 2002, May

A Computer Room of One's Own

by Brian McDonough           

Bay
Area middle schools are using
boy-free zones to excite girls about computers.

At
2:20 p.m. on a Wednesday, Maureen Willis ' basic keyboarding class at
J.L. Stanford Middle School lets out and 30 kids leave their last class
of the day the way they always have - enthusiastically. But they barely
make it out the door before a second migration reverses the
flow.           

Maybe
it 's not strange that students are running to use the computer lab
after hours, but it might be odd to some teachers to see that the
20-odd middle-schoolers opening up art, game, Web design and database
programs are all girls. Technology is often assumed to be a  'boy
thing,'- an often self-fulfilling prophecy.

"When
I first got here, there were 60 students in the tech club, and only
three of them girls," says Willis. "I felt really bad that at this age,
girls already were bailing out of technology, math and
science."           

The
solution at this Palo Alto middle school was one being adopted by a
number of its Bay Area counterparts: an after-school tech club for
girls. From the first day of the 'GirlTech' club, Willis says, she
learned the importance of giving girls their own place to embrace
technology.

"On
the first day of GirlTech, I came in and there was one girl in the
room, with boys on all the other computers," she says. She led the boys
to where the boys' club was meeting, and came back worried about now
having only one girl. But the computers were all full of girls. "We
were here all along," they said. They were outside and in the back,
they said. "Oh, we weren't going to push our way in."

With
other girls, a lack of assertiveness wouldn't appear to be a problem.
The first arrival on this afternoon is Laura, a sixth-grader who walks
among the rows of computers the way the cast of The West Wing strides
importantly through White House corridors. "Mrs. Babb," she calls, as
the second GirlTech teacher enters the room, "do you have the group for
Burlingame, because we need to make the PowerPoint presentation by
Friday!"           

Jean
Babb smiles. "Yes, Laura." A visitor asks how long she's been working
for the 12-year-old juggernaut, and Babb laughs. "It does seem that way
sometimes."

Laura,
the resident 'database queen,' willingly tears herself away from
preparing her presentation to discuss the beauty of GirlTech.
Quick-witted, articulate and precise, she zeroes in immediately on the
chief reward of the club. "That's easy: Self confidence," she asserts.
"I go around, I talk, and I've gotten really confident as a speaker,
talking to educators and all. It's boosted my confidence, and really
been a boon to me."

Hard
to believe she ever needed that boon, but Willis confirms that Laura is
much more forward and computer-literate these days. Laura notes that
while her father is a computer programmer, the computer at home is
dominated by her brother. And in school, well, it can be a project just
getting near a computer. "Boys are more willing to shove their way onto
the computers," she says. "Girls are more timid. So many people expect
boys to be better than girls at computers that we start to believe it."

How to Pick Up Girls           

There's
an art to drawing girls into a technology program, Willis says. The
first step was assuring that game-hyped boys don't muscle the girls
out. Second was making the room a comfortable and social place to be.

"Lesson
two was that girls do things in twos or more " it's a social thing, and
they go where their friends go," Willis says. So the club is
unstructured, with girls working in groups on anything from databases
to games. On the day that Laura is fretting about the PowerPoint
presentation, several girls are playing with 'makeover' software from
Seventeen magazine, others are working on a Web page, and another is
playing a Sim game. "Hey, look at this," and "I did it!" are called out
frequently.

"Mrs. Babb and Mrs. Willis try to keep things pretty open," says Laura. "It's a comforting atmosphere."

A
handful of the girls wear paper crowns, awarded in recognition for
achievements. There is a database queen, a couple Web queens, plus a
full medieval hierarchy of princesses and ladies. There's also music in
the background and a table of cookies and snacks.

"The
girls love to wear their crowns," Willis laughs. "It's just that little
bit they need to feel comfortable in the technology room. They have to
know it will be a cool, fun place. That's why we play the music and
bring the snacks."

"It's
really really cool," says Tiffany, a seventh-grader and one of two Web
queens to have designed the club's page on the school site. "There's
not many places where you can sit and be with other people without a
boy looking over your shoulder saying, "That's wrong."

Another
trick 
to engaging girlsí interest in computers is to engage
their interest in something else, says Linda Kekelis, project director
of Techbridge, which sponsors girls tech clubs in and around Oakland.

"We
talked to girls about their interests and also addressed stereotypes,"she says. "We wanted to use technology for projects that make a
difference in their own lives or community, and they wanted to do art
and designed-based things. Girls like technology as a tool to make
something, or to do research."           

Bridging the Gender Gap

Techbridge
is run by the Chabot Space and Science Center. With major funding from
the National Science Foundation, the three-year Techbridge project is
helping establish and fund girls' tech clubs at five middle schools and
three high schools in Oakland, and at the California School for the
Blind in Fremont, Calif.

"We
serve about 200 girls a year," Kekelis says. A lot, but barely a dent
against the overwhelming number of men in the tech professions today.
"Despite all the new opportunities in technology, there's still not a
lot of women in the field. The next generation of girls, when given the
opportunity to deal with technology in a club or class, say no. We
wanted to address that."

The
need for girls' clubs, Kekelis says, stems partly from the boy-oriented
nature of video games. "A lot of kids' entry to technology and
computers has to do with games, and a lot of those are marketed to
boys, with a lot of gore, violence and competition," she says. "We've
also seen it common that families will place the computer in a boy's
room, limiting the girls' access."     

The
various schools being funded all create their own version of a girls'
club, she says. "At the School for the Blind, the girls there saw a
need for a school newsletter, so they interview, take pictures, and
[electronically] create a newsletter that's a combination of regular
print, large print and braille, and the Internet version can be read to
them through a voice interface," Kekelis says. "Montero Middle School
girls first learned to design their own Web page, and now they're
designing them for after-school programs. The girls work in teams to
find out about the clubs and design Web pages for them."  
           
           
    

Other girls are learning
about the real nuts and bolts. "They're learning to solder," she says.
"For many, it's their first opportunity to do tinkering and building.
Giving them exposure to this, and demystifying the hardware, helps
build confidence."

Classic Approach           

One
of
the Techbridge beneficiary schools took a different tack in
getting girls into technology. At Bret Harte Middle School, math and
science
teacher Anthony Cody was asked to run an after-school club, but
he suggested a morning elective instead.

"Mainly
it was my personal preference to want to do it as part of my regular
teaching load," Cody admits, but adds that the instructional approach
has paid off. "It's not only an elective, but it?s 7:45 in the morning
- these girls really want to be there.           

"In
terms of productivity, we're able to do a whole lot more as a class
than as a club. We?re able to pull in more resources and use them more
effectively," he says. To start with, it's five full periods a week,
not one after-school session. Also, he can organize lessons to get the
most for his 32 girls from his dozen computers capable of running
design and imaging software.           

Cody
has taught his girls image editing, presentation software, some video
production and some desktop publishing. "We had a small business going
for awhile making business cards and personal sticker labels for
parents and relatives," he says. "This semester, I'm going to see how
far we can get with iMovie."

As
with the after-school clubs, Cody says he's seen a considerable boost
in his girls' confidence. "When we started, I spent a lot of time
running around the room," he says. "Now the girls really have a lot of
confidence and can do their own troubleshooting and solve their own
problems."

It's a Girl's, Girl's, Girl's World           

Kekelis
says one problem in getting girls to point and click is their belief
that girls don't do that. "The stereotypes the girls had were that you
had to be white or Asian," she says. "You had to be hardworking,
super-smart, and you had to be a guy. My thought is that a lot of boys
have those 'nerdy' and racial stereotypes, too, but the gaming
compensates, so it's more compelling to boys, but not girls."

That's why Techbridge is working with Oakland's
Mills College, bringing undergrads from the all-woman campus to the
younger girls.           

"One of the nice features of the class is we got
two Mills College undergrads as assistants," says Cody. "One's
Asian-American, and the other is African-American, which matches the
composition of the class fairly well. One or the other is in every day."

Often
tech clubs are as much about getting away from the computer as about
turning on programs. Cody and Willis both took students to present at
the California League of Middle Schools conference in January, and
Willis has taken her students as far as San Diego to meet both
educators and women working in technology.  
             

The
results? Willis' Girltech partner, Jean Babb, reports that some of her
graduates marched into their new high school's boy-dominated robotics
club. "Our graduates went in and said, 'What do you have for us in this
club?'"

GirlTech students met a somewhat patronizing Navy officer
encountered in San Diego with such sharp questions as "What roles are
there for women on your ship?" and "Do you respect your female superior
officers?"Kekelis says Techbridge girls are also making their voices
heard away from the computer, as well as in front of it. "Last year,
one of the teachers from Oakland Technical High School told me he had
teachers coming up saying 'What's up with these [tech club] girls?'
They were developing their voices, talking and writing more in English
and other classes." 

Willis says that finding that voice starts the moment they enter GirlTech.

"We've learned not to answer a question that
another of the girls can answer, because that empowers them," she says.
"We tend to stand back and watch."           

Brian McDonough is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.

Tech Needs More Women           

Maureen
Willis has looked into women's place in the technology world, and it's
a pretty small one, so far. Some of the statistics she and other
teachers are trying to change:

  • Girls
    represent 17 percent of those taking the computer science AP
    test,
    and less than a tenth of higher-level CS AB
    test-takers.             
  • About
    20
    percent of IT professionals are
    women.             
  • Women
    receive less than 28 percent of computer science BA degrees,
    down from a high of 37 percent in 1984. Computer science is the
    only
    field in which female participation has decreased over
    time.             
  • Women
    receive only 9 percent of engineering-related BA
    degrees.

Tips for Bringing IT to Girls

Maureen
Willis
says that a variety of sources, including her own
classroom
experience, have led her to assemble a couple dozen tips for
getting girls to check out technology clubs. Highlights
include:               

  1. Girls
    like
    to join clubs and be with their friends, so make using a computer
    a
    social activity. Make it a party atmosphere with snacks and
    music
    that appeals to the
    girls.

  2. Avoid
    labeling the activity as remedial, which may turn off girls
    and stigmatize the
    program.             

  3. Girls
    need role models - professional women (guest speakers, field trips to
    local companies). Talk to girls about computer science that involves
    technology. Many girls think of computer related careers as those where
    they would be stuck in a small cubicle and bored. Encourage girls to
    participate in conferences and other events that introduce them to
    women in technical careers and get them interested in math, science and
    technology.
  4. Promote
    girls as experts. Allow girls to mentor other girls with
    their
    acquired expertise, and encourage
    exploration.
  5. Be
    creative.
    Introduce software and techniques in areas that interest the girls.
a)
Holiday
ornaments using Adobe Photo Deluxe and a digital camera or scanner

b)
Designing
your dream home or bedroom

c) Do
makeovers
with digital images of the girls (or their teachers) manipulated
in
Adobe Photo
Deluxe.
  1. Involve
    girls in taking care of the computers, installing software,
    and
    helping other teachers with their acquired
    expertise.             
  2. Let
    the girls' interests decide the direction the club takes in technology.
    It's ok to form interest groups and have more than one group
    functioning at a time (Web page design, database, animation, writing,
    illustration, computer
    art).             
  3. Be
    aware
    of
    inequities. Each girl comes to club with a different expertise
    in
    computer use. The goal is to advance all the girls in
    their
    technology skills in a safe
    environment.