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Computer Classes Aren't Just for Boys Anymore

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Gayle Beland's computer-based women's history class is technically open to boys, but she doesn't really expect them to take it.

She designed the course, known as WINDOWS, specifically to introduce girls to computers.

"What we're trying to do is show girls that there have been lots of achieving women throughout history, and hopefully raise their self-esteem," said Ms. Beland, a computer-literacy teacher at Parkside Junior High School in Manchester, N.H. "We're going to see if that helps them to go into math and science and computers."

WINDOWS--an acronym for "women inventing notable database on-line winning self-esteem"--is one of several computer courses tailored specifically to girls that are popping up in public schools across the country. The teachers behind the programs share a concern that girls could miss out on educational and career opportunities if they aren't encouraged to study computers.

"There are people who in effect don't really have a free choice of what they want to pursue in life and whose economic viability is limited because of factors that shouldn't matter," said Allan Fisher, the associate dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Concerned that K-12 schools are failing to prepare girls for careers in technology, Mr. Fisher started a summer institute that, along with teaching the C++ programming language, instructs high school teachers on how to make girls feel comfortable in computer science classes.

Boys dominate most elective computer classes. For each of the past three years, girls made up only 12 percent of the students who took the AB-level Advanced Placement computer science exam, which tests students who have taken a full year of computer science.

One reason girls are less inclined to study computers is the "geek stereotype--the idea that if you're interested in computer science, you don't have a social life," said Jane Margolis, a visiting research scientist in education and women's studies at Carnegie Mellon.

Means to an End

But the way computer science is usually taught--as an abstract subject in and of itself--also discourages girls from taking an interest, Ms. Margolis said.

In general, she said, "girls are more interested in computers to do something else. It's not just hacking for hacking's sake. It's computing to do medicine, or art, or science."

Washington Middle School in Olympia, Wash., is using this approach with a class that combines technology skills with study of issues seen as particularly interesting to adolescent girls, such as nutrition, eating disorders, career exploration, and women's self-defense.

During the unit on eating disorders, for example, the students--all of whom are girls--talk about how advertising affects the ways that girls and women view their bodies. The students analyze the World Wide Web sites of companies that make products for girls their age, and send the companies e-mail messages offering their critiques.

"While we're learning about important topics, we're getting to know the computers better," said Erika Perez, an 8th grader who is taking the Alternative Technology class. "A lot of girls that are shyer around boys will feel more comfortable in a class like this and will not be afraid to ask questions."

Before the class was offered, twice as many 8th and 9th grade boys at Washington Middle signed up for technology electives as girls did. With the new course offering, the ratio of girls to boys is almost equal.

At Manchester High School in Manchester, Conn., certain sections of the school's Technology in the World course are intended exclusively for girls. The curriculum is the same as that for the coed sections; the only difference is that there are no boys in the room.

The purpose is to "capture a moment where we could deal with [the girls'] self-esteem, and give them enough confidence and ability to help them compete," said Alice Pritchard, the assistant director of the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund, who helped create and evaluate the single-sex sections.

Ms. Pritchard said the girls in these sections have shown "heightened self-confidence" and "more interest in technological careers." In addition, the percentage of girls enrolling in technology electives at the school has risen from 15 percent to 24 percent of total enrollment since the special sections were offered.

Legal Questions

Limiting a class to a single sex has also been tried with subjects such as math and science, but the practice is controversial. ("Calif. Opens Single-Sex Academies," Sept. 10, 1997, and "Educators Debate Impact of Ruling on Single-Sex Classes," July 10, 1996.)

"We don't really know whether single-sex classes are better for girls," said Jo Sanders, the director for the gender-equity program at Washington Research Institute in Seattle. "What we know is that a lot of girls prefer the atmosphere and a lot of teachers prefer the atmosphere in a girls' class, because [girls] don't act out as much [as boys]."

From a legal standpoint, single-sex classes are "problematic," said Marcia Greenberger, a co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

The most important law on the subject is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which says schools receiving federal money "shall not provide any course or otherwise carry out any of its education program or activity separately on the basis of sex."

But the law includes a provision that could be used as a justification for offering single-sex technology classes, Ms. Greenberger said. A school may, in certain circumstances, take affirmative action to overcome conditions that have caused limited participation by gender, she said.

"Given the problems of the way courses can be structured and programs have been developed in computers for young boys, technology is one of those areas where trying to set up a program for young girls could be considered consistent with Title IX," Ms. Greenberger said.

To be safe, the schools in Connecticut and New Hampshire make it clear that all of their technology classes are open to boys. The Connecticut school changed the description for its special class sections from "girls only" to "for female students but open to boys by request" at the recommendation of the Connecticut Department of Education after a local newspaper raised questions about the single-sex sections.

Washington Middle School holds a promotional meeting only for girls when recruiting students for its Alternative Technology class, but instructors there said that if a boy asked to enroll, they would probably have to let him.

"If we're doing something wrong, I think we'd have to quit, but I don't think we are," said Patrick Gill, the assistant superintendent for the 9,000-student Olympia district. "We're doing it for the right reasons."

Girls Wanted

One school--Black Hawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pa.--has increased enrollment in computer science courses without offering single-sex classes. Instead, the school--which includes grades 8-12--targets girls for coed classes through recruiting and extracurricular activities.

Each year, Nancy Mahosky, a math and technology teacher, holds an assembly for all 8th grade girls, during which she shows them a video she made featuring girls in her Advanced Placement computer science class.

She also leads a Young Women's Technology Club (boys can join, but none have) after school and holds breakfasts in which girls in advanced math, technology, and science classes talk with 9th grade girls about the importance of those subjects.

"It's not like you can just hope [girls] show up in your class," Ms. Mahosky said.

Her efforts, plus a new basic-computer class requirement for 8th graders, helped boost the enrollment of girls in the school's computer programming and Advanced Placement computer science courses from about 10 percent of the total enrollment in 1990 to a high of about 30 percent last year.

This past semester, however, female enrollment dipped down to 15 percent, in part because advanced math and science classes were scheduled at the same time as advanced computer classes, Ms. Mahosky said.

She said that once she gets girls into the computer classes, they do well. But she's also learned some ways to keep girls interested, such as emphasizing cooperative learning and using computer programs that appeal to girls, including simulation programs.

"Before I knew anything about attracting females, I used to put a girl in a group of boys, and it didn't work very well. Even though the girls had good ideas, the boys sort of took over," Ms. Mahosky recalled.

Now, she said, "I put the girls together. It works great."

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