Teen Girls Play with Technology at IBM Camp

IBM and 30 junior high school girls spend a week crafting "binary code" bracelets, building Second Life projects and, hopefully, falling in love with technology.

On a recent August afternoon, 30 adolescent girls sat captivated in a conference room at IBMs Watson Research Center in Cambridge, Mass. Wide-eyed, they watched a scientist from M.I.T. (Massachusettes Institute of Technology) dip a pink carnation into a vat of liquid nitrogen, and then shatter the frozen flower against the side of a tank.

"Whoa!" said the girls, in unison.

"Liquid Nitrogen is Cool!" was one of several activities at this years EX.I.T.E. (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) program, IBMs week-long day camp for seventh and eighth grade girls. This year, IBM hosted 53 EX.I.T.E. programs worldwide, 16 in North America.

Founded in 1999, and staffed by women volunteers with technical backgrounds, the program aims to do something about the dearth of women in information technology fields by sparking an early interest in technology among schoolgirls.

The lack of women in IT fields is a real issue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women filled only 26.7 percent of computer and mathematical positions in 2006—and only 16.6 percent of all network and computer systems administrator positions.


Read here about how women CIOs are smashing the glass ceiling.

Camp volunteers spent several weeks creating activities that would serve to attract junior high girls while also giving them a realistic taste for future careers in technology. The girls learned how to make "binary bracelets" (of beads that sported ones and zeroes on them), how to use PCs and light detectors to program Lego robots, and how to make bubble gum. ("It was sticky, but it was really good," said Vanessa Banham, 13, a student at Boston Latin Academy in Boston.) But they also learned about the headaches of project management by playing a team-building game in the virtual world Second Life. And they learned about worldwide marketing issues—using their bubble gum as an example—in an activity called "Globalize Your Product."

"It was good to work as a team," Banham said.

The day after the I-35 Mississippi River bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, several civil engineering volunteers taught an impromptu lesson on truss bridges. And with a hands-on activity that utilized West Point Bridge Designer software, the girls learned the challenge of building safe structures under tight budgets.

"We built bridges on a computer, and we had to work to keep our costs down," said Hoda Yehia, 12, a student at McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, Mass.

"For girls, the appeal is often the application itself and not just technology for the sake of technology," said Cathleen Finn, a community relations program manager at IBM, who works out of the Cambridge office. "So we try to pick activities that are based on more than projectiles or blowing things up….Research has shown that girls want to make a difference for humanity."

To wit, when given their own chance to freeze a balloon or a flower in liquid nitrogen, all of the girls picked a flower, and all but a few of them chose to keep the frozen flower rather than smash it against the tank. "I didnt feel like hurting it," said Nirupama Gidla, 13, a student at the Kennedy-Longfellow School in Cambridge.

Recruiting efforts for the EX.I.T.E. program have been pretty successful, but it took a while. Gidla heard of the camp when "the technology teacher came by our English class to say that they had a few people who had signed up for the IBM camp and that they needed more," said Gidla, who said shed like to work at IBM someday doing "something related to math or science," although she also showed certain signs of marketing prowess.


To read about how a luncheon honoring women in technology opened one mans eyes, click here.

"Not so many people in my class were interested in the camp," Gidla said. "But maybe they will be once I tell them about it….Its IBM. Its a great company."

For the Cambridge EX.I.T.E. camp this year, there were 45 applicants for 30 spaces. The application process involved an essay in which the girls imagined an invention that would improve their worlds. Yehia wrote about a biodegradable trash bag. Gidla wrote about a USB-based application-specific device designed to help organize her schedule. Bahnham wrote about a double-sided television that would allow family members watch two different shows, while still spending time together in the same room.

Each EX.I.T.E. camper, worldwide, has been teamed with an adult mentor who agrees to keep in touch with the girl throughout the school year, via e-mail, in hopes of fueling what might be a newfound interest in technology careers.

"One week during the summer in sixth grade isnt going to change lives by itself," said Wendy Page, a software manager at IBM Rational in Lexington, Mass., who has been mentoring girls through the EX.I.T.E. program since IBM bought Rational in 2003. She said girls are often excited when they learn that a technology career often includes global travel. "You have to get them where their interests lie," Page said.


Check out eWEEK.coms Careers Center for the latest news, analysis and commentary on careers for IT professionals.