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Nurturing the Techie in Girls

October 19, 2000|SUSAN McLESTER | smclester@cmp.com

Will your school-age daughter graduate college with a useful mastery of e-mail, the Internet and basic software such as word processors and spreadsheets? Very likely.

Will she have a fighting chance to compete with men for the best-paying jobs requiring an advanced knowledge of computer concepts, a high degree of analytical skills and the ability to imagine more innovative uses of technology already so ubiquitous in our lives? Probably not.

Despite recent encouraging statistics showing increases in the number of girls represented in upper-level science and math courses and in their general comfort with the everyday uses of computers, there's still plenty of evidence they'll be standing on the sidelines as men dominate the vision and shape of our increasingly technology-dependent future.

"Tech-Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age," a recent study by the American Assn. of University Women, reports that girls are "alarmingly underrepresented in the computer science and technology fields," earning less than 28% of computer science bachelor's degrees, down from 37% in 1984.

It is not news, of course, that girls are generally less involved in the digital world than boys. Although research finds boys and girls share an equal interest and competence in technology early on, girls gradually lose interest in digital pursuits toward the end of elementary school. The trend accelerates as they move onto high school, college and careers.

But parents and teachers can encourage girls to stay involved in technology. Some ideas:

* Expose girls--and boys--to positive role models. Arrange field trips to work sites where women perform important jobs in technology-related industries. Invite women to speak at school. Research mentoring opportunities in the area.

Teachers can have students research the technological accomplishments of women--from physicist Marie Curie to Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina. Profiles of women leaders can be found at Autodesk's Design Your Future Web site at http://www.autodesk.com/dyf/dyfmain2.html. Additional helpful sources are Girl Tech at http:// www.girltech.com, and Girlstart at http://www.girlstart.com, both of which offer lesson plans, contests and links to numerous resources.

* Encourage girls to think beyond traditional "girl ghetto" skill domains such as English. Teachers can challenge girls to research and create their own inventions. Girltech.com has detailed lesson plans on its Web site. Parents can take their daughters to a hobby shop to look over "build it yourself" kits that might match their interests, or give them subscriptions to Popular Science or a computer publication. Encourage girls to roll up their sleeves and take things apart. Bring an old computer or television home or into the classroom and invite a group of girls to take it apart.

* Encourage girls to take the highest level math and science courses available--even if these are not their strongest academic areas. In secondary schools, suggest that the administration keep track of how many girls take advanced classes in math and science and propose a program to increase their numbers. Find out whether there are special math, science or technology programs offered at school. If not, talk to the principal and the PTA about trying some. Good places to start are Advocates for Women in Science and Math at http://www.awsem.com, or Action Guide for Girls' Education at http://www.igc.org/beijing/ngo/ girls.html.

* Be sure girls have equal access to computers. Parents should ask teachers about their schedules for "hands-on" computer use. Classroom or computer lab duties can be rotated between girls and boys and rules can be established for group projects that ensure girls are given equal opportunities to perform critical thinking and higher-level computer-based tasks. Girl-only computer programming classes, computer summer camps and other programs let them experience environments where females are in charge. The American Assn. of University Women at http://www.aauw.org is a good starting place for additional information on these topics.

* Encourage girls to be leaders, to take risks and to embrace a broad range of experiences outside technology. Support their interest and participation in student government, sports programs and extracurricular activities such as the debate team, chess or art clubs. Volunteer activities, internships, and work-study programs are also excellent practical preparation for the skills required in the work force. Empowering Women in Sports at http://www.feminist.org/research/sports2.html and Cybergrrl at http://www.cybergrrl.com can tell you more.

Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.

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