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The Electronic Gender Gap

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Growing numbers of studies suggest that girls and women are raised to think differently about technology than males do.

According to the Center for Technology in Education, a New York-based research-and-development outfit that has investigated the issue, females tend to look on technological devices as "people connectors" and instruments that solve real-life problems.

When asked in one study to imagine a futuristic invention, for example, adolescent girls mentioned such things as a computer that could detect sadness and offer words of comfort. Women in the study described a jewelry-like medallion that could be worn around the neck and used to communicate with others and transport people at the press of a button.

On the other hand, men and boys who were interviewed in the same study viewed technology as a way to extend their power over the physical environment. Their inventions tended to involve absolute control, tremendous speed, and unlimited knowledge. In the study, they conjured up images of a computer linked directly to the brain that provides all the knowledge a person needs to be mentally "transported" to another time. Or they thought up fantastic cars and flight toys.

Moreover, unlike girls, they find the workings of the technology itself as interesting as the devices' potential usefulness.

The trouble, these researchers say, is that the culture that has grown up around technology is more amenable to the masculine view. Even in schools, much of the educational software used mimics commercial computer games in their appeal to boys. Girls will play with "Mortal Kombat" and other games, the researchers say, but they are not compelled by them in the way that boys are.

And this, researchers at the center maintain, may be one reason why women are underrepresented in technological fields.

With that in mind, they have developed "Imagine," an educational software program and curriculum specifically designed to appeal to middle-school-age girls' distinct take on technology and to draw them into the study of design and engineering.

"Boys are playing with these ideas a lot earlier than girls are," says Dorothy T. Bennett, one of the researchers who worked on the project. "You have to give girls permission to do that."

The Power of Design

The center, which is a now part of the Boston-based Education Development Center, began developing the Imagine program three years ago with funds from the Spencer Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

The object of the program is simple: to provide user-friendly electronic tools for girls--or anyone else, for that matter--to design and bring to life their own inventions.

Bennett says the program's focus on design is particularly compelling to girls for several reasons.

"What girls are interested in is problem-solving," she says. Furthermore, with design, "there are some elements of creativity. You can make [something that is] esthetically beautiful and it affects other people."

The program's approach also provides a different entry point into the field of technological design, Bennett says. "Traditionally, when you get into engineering, you have to go though the physics and the mathematics before you can touch anything."

Without knowing much about how turbojets or silicon computer chips work, girls use the program to draw their machines--either from scratch or by using pre-existing parts that are stored in a "warehouse." In the program's "customshop," they can re-size and re-shape those parts or create new ones and store them for later use. The complete creations are mapped out in the "workshop," and students can add animation to show how the parts work together. Throughout the program, students are also using text to label their parts, to describe them, and to tell stories about their inventions--a feature designed to satisfy girls' tendencies, documented in several studies, to want to put their creations in a context of some sort.

Beyond the 'Magic Wand'

The computer program is designed to work on an enhanced Macintosh computer. The software, however, is only one part of the total package.

"The software is the magic wand, and there's a whole curriculum framework that supports [it]," says Margaret Honey, the project director.

As part of that supporting curriculum, the researchers have created a print curriculum guide that outlines eight classroom units to introduce students to design concepts, a technical guide to the Imagine program, and an experimental HyperCard program called "ImagineTour" designed to help teachers envision how the package might fit in with what they already do. HyperCard is a computer language that enables users to combine different media, including photographs, video, and music. ImagineTour suggests curricular activities, provides samples of student work, and describes design techniques, among other features.

"Teachers are already overburdened in terms of the curricula in schools, and they need well-designed material that can be slid into already existing curricula," Honey says.

As part of the overall program, girls are asked, for example, to bring in photographs or drawings of designers and inventors, to find names of things designed in more than one way, such as telephones, and to begin to think in more sophisticated ways about how user's needs are taken into consideration in design. All are activities aimed at humanizing the subject matter and encouraging girls to begin to think of themselves as designers.

Honey and her colleagues tested the entire package twice with small groups of girls at a New York middle school for students who are gifted in nontraditional ways.

The first test, conducted three years ago with six 11- to 13-year-olds, suggested there were some bugs to work out. Two of the girls, for example, were unable to produce a computer design because they spent an inordinate amount of time struggling to draw their devices freehand. In response, the researchers created the "warehouse" function for the software with its supply of ready-made parts.

Of the nine girls in the second test, all were able to use the software to elaborate on at least one of their design ideas.

Six of the girls went beyond designing the kinds of domestic and problem-solving devices that adolescent girls typically came up with in the center's previous studies. They instead devised a range of futuristic devices, manufacturing machines, and computer-controlled products that transformed things or translated data--machines that the researchers contend represent a key extension of girls' technological imaginings.

Moreover, nearly all of the girls were able to describe how the form of their inventions related to function, and most drew details showing how the parts worked together.

What is less clear, the researchers say, is how well the program works in a coeducational setting.

"These girls became very much a group and had particular ideas about what it is that technology should facilitate," Bennett says. "They came up freely and talked about their fears of looking inside a machine."

She adds: "My worry is that, in a whole class of boys that is coming up with powerful and futuristic ideas with turbojets, will girls' voices be heard or will teachers get sort of dazzled by all that stuff?"

To provide a supportive life line to girls in those situations, Bennett is heading up another n.s.f.-funded initiative to create an electronic network linking young girls interested in technology with women already accomplished in such fields.

Center researchers are also talking now with educational software publishers interested in marketing the Imagine program and with children's museum directors who are considering using the program as a hands-on exhibit.

No Barbies

But, beyond those limited efforts, these and other researchers say, the issue of gender differences as they relate to technology is not the hottest topic in the field. While most researchers agree that boys and girls embrace technology differently, they disagree over how useful it is to highlight those differences.

Moreover, the field is bogged down with "first generation" kinds of issues, such as how to get teachers to use computers in their classrooms in the first place.

On the other hand, commercial manufacturers of toys and entertainment software are beginning to show an interest in designing products with females in mind. And a steady stream of female-friendly products have emerged in recent years.

What researchers at the center would not like to see, however, is a rash of programs that, in struggling to appeal to girls, further stereotype them.

"Then you end up getting stuff like 'shopping-at-the-mall' or 'Barbie,' which appropriates what the mass culture tells us girls are interested in," Honey says. "It's hard to climb out of the problem."

In contrast, the goal of Imagine is to provide flexibility and to make it legitimate for girls to enter the technological world.

"It's an opening up of the curriculum to allow for both voices to make education be a lot better for everyone," Bennett adds. "And maybe we'll see some new and interesting things in design as a result."

For information about the program, call (212) 807-4209.

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