- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A clunky Lego robot slowly rolled along a path outlined with two strips of blue tape. But seconds after it began, Arissa Cooper and her teammates spotted a programming mistake and snatched it up.

“It was a little mind-wracking when you had to change it, fix it,” she said. “We just thought it through, like do we need (to make it turn at) a 40 degree angle or something else?”

Arissa, 11, was attending her third Geek Squad Academy, a summer camp put on by Best Buy and Junior Achievement of Utah. It aims to help students become confident in their ability to learn about technology, a goal shared by organizers of similar Utah summer programs, educators and policy-makers who see computer programming skills as crucial for future careers - especially for girls, as women lag in lucrative tech fields.

But among the Utah campers building robots, designing video games and experimenting with 3-D printers, boys continue to outnumber girls.

David Johnson runs the GREAT - Graphics and Robotics Exploration with Amazing Technology - summer camp at the University of Utah for kids who want to learn about programming.

This year about 600 students enrolled - and about 18 percent are girls.

It’s ironic, he said, because girls have unique skills.

“It’s almost always the girls camp that does the best; they’re more competitive,” he said. “They’re a little better at staying on task and persevering.”

As he helped judge First Lego League competition at the U. this year, he said, he found the best teams included girls or were exclusively girls.

But he said he doesn’t see the parents of boys encouraging their daughters to participate.

“I know these boys have sisters. It doesn’t seem to cross the parents’ minds to send the girls to the camps as well,” he said. “It’s really unfair to be eliminating a large portion of the population from trying (technology) out.”

He’s unsure what other reasons may limit girls’ interest.

“Something is keeping them away,” he said, “and the ones that are here are having fun.”

The U.’s video game design program is considered one of the best in the country. The summer game design camp for ages 11 to 13 drew the largest enrollment, with 42 kids - and just two were girls.

Jake Muehle, a recent graduate of the master’s program in the Entertainment Arts and Engineering department, is helping teach sessions for middle school and high school students this summer.

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