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Tech Camp Aims to Steer Girls Towards Scientific Careers - 2004-08-06


Studies show that women are dramatically underrepresented in the science and technology workforce. The problem starts as early as middle school, when girls drift into the liberal arts, and boys fill up math and science classes. The global technology giant International Business Machines (IBM) has started a summer camp for girls aimed at reversing that trend.

IBM's EXITE camp for middle school girls exists in 37 locations around the world, from Chile, to South Africa, to Indonesia, to the Netherlands. IBM staffers say the program is based on one simple principle: more girls would get interested in science, if only someone showed them how much fun it can be. So girls learn about chemistry by using liquid nitrogen to freeze bananas; they learn software programs by putting on a virtual fashion show.

On the third day of the EXITE camp in New York state, the young women are at work making a gooey, colorful substance called gak. Gak is a great toy, you can stretch it, mold it, or bounce it off the floor. But gak is also a fairly complex science experiment. The campers make gak by bonding borax atoms, then adding glue and, of course, food coloring. Volunteers from IBM teach the girls how to make the gak and then playfully quiz them, to ensure that they understand the science behind it.

Christine Goldston, who helped plan the New York program, says EXITE camps around the world use games to spark girls' interest in science.

"We do similar activities," she says. "Everything is involved with science and technology, is showing them how science and math could be fun."

Ms. Goldston says another goal is to teach girls about the many career possibilities in science and technology. Campers spend a few hours following, or "shadowing," IBM employees as they go about their regular work. That is the girls' chance to see what workers at IBM really do all day long, and many of the girls say it was their favorite part of the camp. Thirteen-year-old campers Lila Chambers and Melissa Foster say shadowing made them feel like they were really involved in the workday.

Chambers: "The person we were with, she explained everything to us and even asked us for help, when she was replying to her inbox."

Foster: "Yeah, she asked us what's another way you can write this, and then we helped her out."

At the end of the week, each girl is assigned a mentor, a female IBM staff member who keeps in touch with the girl throughout the school year and offers advice about school and about the girl's future.

Anu Rao is starting her second year as a mentor. She says many girls feel uncomfortable with science and technology because they think of those areas as almost exclusively masculine. Female role models are important, she says, because they show girls that women have a place in science and technology too.

"What I expect them to get out of it, around the world, is an understanding that there are a lot of avenues open to them, and get an interest in science and technology," says Ms. Rao. "A lot of girls are not as focused on science and technology as they could be. It's good to show them some role models that they can really go after."

The EXITE program is only in its fourth year, so it's too soon to tell if alumni will go on to work in science and technology. But IBM views the camp as an investment in its own future. Mary Murray, a coordinator for EXITE, explains that IBM benefits from having a large, diverse work force around the world.

"We need students to follow science and technology careers all over the world, hopefully someday to be part of IBM or other companies," says Ms. Murray. "It's a global economy and we need especially girls to consider these careers, from many different countries."

Of course, not all of the EXITE campers will go into technology careers. Quite a few of them dream of becoming pastry chefs, actresses, or basketball players. But the EXITE volunteers say whatever field the girls end up in, they will benefit from their week at the camp. At the very least, they will have learned that math and science are not as intimidating as they thought, even if they don't remember anything besides the gak.