Girl power! Summer camp grooms tomorrow's techies

It's 10 o'clock on a sunny April morning in Balboa Park. In a spacious Girl Scout cabin tucked away amid lush green palm trees, 20 girls ranging in age from 11 to 14, most wearing jeans and pigtails, are gearing up for today's camp activities. But there are no sit-upons or s'mores, potholders or paper crafts -- just 21 laptops, two color printers, 10 digital cameras, two scanners and a palpable abundance of preadolescent energy and creative enthusiasm.

Welcome to Technology Goddesses, a program of weekend and weeklong technology camps that aims to keep young girls engaged in computing and technology, especially through those dicey middle-school years when girls' interest in computing begins to decline. Studies show that prior to fifth grade, boys and girls have a similar level of interest in computers. But after that, boys' interest increases and girls' interest begins to wane. The upshot is fewer female computer science graduates and fewer women in IT careers.

Cora Carmody is hoping that Technology Goddesses will help reverse that trend and make technology relevant -- even cool -- for this at-risk age and gender group, by teaching girls about digital design, Web site development, computer graphics and digital moviemaking, and by exposing them to women in technology-related careers.

Carmody, senior vice president for global IT at Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. in Pasadena, Calif., also considers the program a way to build the future IT workforce.

"Any one of these girls could be a CIO one day because they're starting now," she says.

Carmody founded the program in 2002 on the East Coast and began working with the Girl Scouts in 2003, when she moved to the West Coast to work at Science Applications International Corp. Since then, the program has logged more than 11,000 hours and reached more than 1,000 girls through 33 workshops, seven weekend programs, three weeklong camps and eight field trips to places like Microsoft Corp.'s Innovation Center in Irvine, Calif., and Cox Communications Inc.'s multimedia digital production studio at Petco Park, the home playing field of the San Diego Padres.

All of the programs take place in a "girl-friendly" learning environment.

"The patterns of learning are different for girls," says Carmody, who is the mother of three sons and a daughter and the leader of a Girl Scout troop.

"Girls are much more social. They like working together in teams. They're also much more impressionable by role models. And their role models tend to be older girls, not adults. An older girl is the best technology mentor for a younger girl," she says.

Technology Goddesses and Girl Scouts made a perfect pairing, especially since one of the Girl Scouts' mottoes is "As you learn, teach someone else." Also, as of sixth grade, every Interest Project, or IP, for which Girl Scouts earn a badge includes a career component, as well as skills, technology and service components.

"Through Technology Goddesses, the girls learn to use technology and gain life skills and develop critical-thinking skills," says Jo Dee Jacob, CEO of Girl Scouts, San Diego-Imperial Council "They educate themselves and others."

This particular weekend, the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade scouts, called Cadettes, are using Bureau of Labor Statistics data to research IT-related careers. They are also coaching younger Brownies and Daisies, who are in kindergarten through third grade, and the campers join briefly for various technology lessons.

Today, it's eighth-grader Angela Zhang's turn to lead a group of Daisies through a "Point, Click and Go" Internet navigation and safety session. A Girl Scout since the fourth grade, Zhang aspires to be a surgeon. This summer, she'll spend three weeks at a camp for talented youth sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.

"I like this camp because it's so relaxed and you learn so much," Zhang says.

In the afternoon, Leslie Biasi, a Girl Scout co-leader and project coordinator at Dot Hill Systems Corp., a RAID storage firm in Carlsbad, Calif., teaches a multimedia workshop for the older girls. Last year, Biasi took an unpaid leave of absence from her job to volunteer at the Technology Goddesses weeklong camp.

Like Carmody, she is committed to helping girls appreciate the creative and career possibilities that IT has to offer.

Years ago, "when I first started learning HTML and saw how easy it was, I thought,'Why are only guys doing it?'" Biasi recalls. "HTML is just text telling the computer to display a picture or make text a certain color."

The products from Biasi's session are the main attraction on Day 2 of camp. That's when the girls showcase the multimedia presentations they've created about Technology Goddesses programs. These incorporate video, clip art, photos and lots of music, ranging from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the bilingual rap and rock tunes of Karsh Kale (see video below).

Over the course of the two days, the girls also get girly with technology. They make scented bath salts and use graphics software and designs downloaded from the Internet to create labels for the jars. These items, Carmody points out, can be sold to raise additional funds for more Technology Goddesses programs or the Girl Scout troops, or to offer scholarships to Technology Goddesses summer camp. This, too, is in line with another Girl Scout motto: "A Girl Scout uses resources wisely."

Virtually all of the Technology Goddesses' camp activities, workshops and programs are designed to be repeated by other Girl Scout troops. Step-by-step materials and directions are available in a "badge-in-a-box" format.

"I'd like to see this program grow," says Carmody.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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