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IT: Where the Girls Aren't

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Educators need to do more to encourage girls’ interest in technology and science, according to panelists who spoke on the topic at South by Southwest, a music, film, and interactive media festival held March 7-11 in Austin, Texas. The panelists also pointed to a number of existing programs that could serve as models for teachers and others interested in fostering girls' technical knowledge.

The annual South by Southwest conference, one of the largest of its kind, draws such luminaries as Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook; Henry Jenkins, MIT professor and author of Convergence Culture; and former Disney head Michael Eisner. It is seen as a highly influential forum on technology and media trends.

In the session on girls and technology, panel moderator Clare Richardson, technology coordinator at the Austin-based Girlstart for “Project IT Girl,” recalled that she herself developed an early interest in computers, science, and math. However, she said that encouragement and guidance from adults is key in fostering and sustaining girls’ interest in areas that are typically seen as the province of men.

“My dad is a mathematics professor," Ms. Richardson said in comments after her presentation. “When I told him I wanted to go to summer camp, he said, ‘Great! As long as it’s a math or science camp.’”

Panelist J Strother Moore, chair of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, cited research showing that girls begin losing interest in math and science by grade 5. By middle school, he said, girls are convinced they’re either not smart enough, or that math and science are for nerds, and by then it’s often too late to rekindle the spark.

Richardson’s Girlstart aims to do just that. The program works with girls from 1st grade through high school, providing one-day workshops, afterschool programs, and one-week summer classes in which students create video games, make robots, or build Web sites.

“We try to sneak learning in while the girls are having fun,” Ms. Richardson said. Girlstart has also launched a program called Project IT Girl, a 3-year initiative funded by the National Science Foundation, for a cohort of 60 high school girls hoping to improve their STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. The girls choose a topic they are passionate about and use technology to create public service announcements and games about it.

“Girlstart is about giving girls confidence,” Ms. Richardson said. “We try to help girls see how a computer science degree can launch you into any profession—arts, dance, or even helping puppies. A [computer science] degree can bring value.”

Expanding Options

During the discussion, Moore noted that misconceptions often keep girls from considering computer science as a career choice.

“There’s a belief that there are no jobs in [computer science], or that they’re all going overseas,” he said. “But the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in 2016 there will be more jobs in CS than there will be qualified people.”

“The high tech workforce in the U.S. is collapsing,” he added. “It’s obvious we need to draw on the other half of the population.”

Another program aiming to fill that gap is Techbridge, a San Francisco Bay-area program that also aims to stimulate girls’ interest in STEM fields. Techbridge has so far served over 2,000 girls in grades 5-12, said Jeri Countryman, a project manager with the program.

Techbridge’s curriculum is emphatically hands-on. Girls in the program learn about cars and engines by taking apart and reassembling lawnmower engines, and they learn green design by building green dollhouses. Girls also build their own telephones as a way to learn about electronics.

As effective as hands-on learning is, Countryman noted that role models and field trips are equally important. “Many people who are interested in volunteering as role models don’t necessarily know how to interact with youth, let alone inspire them in their field,” Countryman said in an e-mail. The organization recently received funding from the National Science Foundation to disseminate a guide for tech role models. At their best, the guide says, effective role models can dispel negative stereotypes about people who are interested in technology and expand girls’ sense of possibilities.

Countryman added that teachers should encourage girls to sign up for math or science classes with friends, so that they know that they won’t be the lone girl in a “sea of males.”

Still, knowing there’s another girl in your class won’t help much if educators don’t teach girls—and minorities—that computer science is a viable option for them. To that end, Techbridge offers a summer training institute for teachers.

Girlstart also offers professional development through a train-the-trainer model designed to give teachers experience with digital microscopes—which they then get to take home with them in exchange for developing lesson plans that are housed on Girlstart’s Web site.

All these programs sound terrific, of course, but do they work? Techbridge is one of few engaging in a longitudinal study assessing its long-term impact. “So far,” Countryman reported, “81 percent of respondents report a greater interest in a career in technology, science, and engineering."

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