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Girls encouraged to enter technology field

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2009

Surrounded by computers, gadgets and video game consoles, dozens of girls gathered in groups to demonstrate their grasp of today's technology. There was excitement and a buzz of productivity at Microsoft's DigiGirlz High Tech Camp as the high schoolers collaborated with one another and proudly displayed the video games they designed.

For some Washington-area youngsters, summer is not just about hanging out at the local pool or watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Instead, it's an opportunity to explore less familiar career paths through camps focused on science and technology.

More of these camps are making girls their target audience, as research shows girls tend to stray away from technology-related activities by the time they are teenagers.

The number of women earning undergraduate degrees in computer science has plunged nearly 50 percent since 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. In 1985, women represented 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degree recipients. By 2008, women represented a mere 18 percent of computer and information sciences undergraduate degree recipients, representing a significant drop in degrees awarded.

A 2007 report by the same group revealed that women held more than half of professional positions in the overall U.S. work force but fewer than 22 percent of software engineering jobs.

Tweens in technology

Similar to the DigiGirlz High Tech Camp held in Washington last month, Digital Media Academy holds technology camps across the country, including a three-week stint this month at George Washington University for students ages 8 to 17 who are interested in learning more about opportunities in technology.

Margaret Lim, director of DMA's youth programs, has witnessed a decline in interest among girls in technology as they mature. Many girls see it as a male-dominated industry, she said.

"It's interesting that at younger ages, around 7 and 8, more girls are involved. … Developmentally they haven't started asking, 'Who's doing what?' and instead they're just naturally curious," Ms. Lim said.

"That's why I think it's important to encourage teachers and parents to get these girls engaged early on, because of the stigma attached to programming being a boys' thing. But if [girls] get hooked early on, they grow in confidence and can bypass the social stigma that technology's supposed to be a certain way," she said.

At DMA's "Adventures in Filmmaking" camp last week, Mikayla Sherman, a 12-year-old girl from Woodbridge, Va., teamed with Amanda Honeycutt, a 13-year-old from Burke, to produce a digital video called "Mixed-Up Match-Ups."

"My dad wanted me to do a different camp, and I really like movies, so I thought it would be cool to see how they make them," Mikayla said. "I really like the acting and the editing."

"I really like being able to make my own movie. It takes a long time, but it's probably worth it," said Amanda, whose father works for The Washington Times. She will be helping to produce videos this fall in a studio at St. Leo the Great Catholic School in Fairfax.

"I wanted to get a head start," she said. "I figured if I liked it I could maybe do it as a career."

In a nearby DMA class, "Adventures in 2-D and 3-D Game Creation," 13-year-old Harris Rothman of Friendship Heights was creating a video game called "Killer Miller" — in a room full of boys.

Michelle Means, who teaches a filmmaking course for the Fairfax Collegiate Summer camp program, has seen this gender divide both as a film student at American University and as an instructor. She finds herself encouraging the girls in her class to participate more in both discussion and production.

"I want to help give females the opportunity to become familiar with this early on because later in life they may not have the same resources. When there's participation and a student holds a camera for the first time, or edits for the first time, I can see them glow, and that's a feeling that can stick with them.

"If they get interested early, and there are resources out there for them to encourage them as they get older, there are just so many things they can accomplish," Ms. Means said.

Shireen Mitchell, founder of Washington nonprofit Digital Sisters, is working to provide a supportive network of women to encourage today's younger generation to pursue their interests in the technology field.

"There just aren't enough role models in schools or tech speakers who are women, and not enough girls are being encouraged by other girls in their [tech] courses," Ms. Mitchell said. She hopes her organization's advocacy and outreach efforts will help to reverse that trend.

Girls going digital

Microsoft's new office location on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest recently opened its doors to high school girls for a three-day DigiGirlz High Tech Camp. One aim of the camp was to encourage young women to pursue college degrees and careers in the male-dominated world of computer science.

"This is our third year doing the DigiGirlz technology camp, and the objective for Microsoft doing these camps is to address the growing need of young women to participate in science, technology, engineering and math," said Donna Woodall, community outreach director for Microsoft's Washington office.

"We do these technology camps to introduce girls to technology in a very fun way, it's like a summertime-fun way of seeing technology, and with the goal to inspire them to continue that," Ms. Woodall said.

Andrea Sheard, a 16-year-old senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Northwest Washington, attended the DigiGirlz camp after taking a computer class.

"I took the class, and it was completely filled with guys, and there aren't that many guys at my school. So a lot of them knew what they were talking about, how to take a computer apart, how to put it back together, how to program this, how to program that. … And I kind of felt out of place, and at times it felt like 'Maybe this isn't for you,'" Angela said.

When campers arrived at the DigiGirlz camp last month, instructors hoped to establish a lasting attraction to technology through a hands-on experience that allowed them to design their own video games.

"I didn't know I was going to be designing a game," said Jewel Jordan, a 15-year-old student at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Springdale, Md. "I actually thought it was going to be observation of how people at Microsoft actually did their work, like how they went through and made the codes for the programs, how they made the games, and stuff like that. … But I like video games, so it was really cool actually learning how to program one."

Donna Woodall said that is the reason why Microsoft decided to sponsor the camps, covering daily costs for attendees, including meals, gift bags and T-shirts.

Microsoft reached out to local technology organizations and local high schools through fliers and e-mails to promote the camp. Of the more than 300 girls who applied, 40 girls were selected to attend; a final 36 enrolled.

DigiGirlz campers were introduced to Microsoft employees who talked about careers in technology, so that the girls would have role models to explain that an interest in technology can be more than just a hobby.

This, Ms. Woodall explained, is a necessary step in extending their interest in technology and computers to college degrees and, perhaps, to lifelong careers.

Ms. Woodall said she will take game concepts developed during the camp and forward them to Microsoft headquarters. With luck, one of their ideas could become an XBox 360 game.

This, she said, will be proof that girls can make a difference in the gaming world.