Camp arouses girls’ interest in sciences

by Jennifer Franklin

Many studies done on girls just entering puberty find that girls’ participation in science courses drops off severely as they enter their teens.
Susan Marino, head of the Program for Women in the Institute of Technology, is doing her best to reverse this trend. That’s why the institute just sponsored two week-long computer camps designed especially for fifth- and sixth-grade girls.
Marino wants to stimulate participants’ interest in science. Her hope is that, armed with new skills and understanding, more girls will go into science careers.
“I’m responsible for getting more women into the program, both in the short and long term.” Marino said. “The faculty at the I.T. is only 6 percent women. That’s not a whole lot.”
Marino explained that the institute’s Program for Women has a tradition of sponsoring career-choices camps for girls during the summer. This year, however, girls are learning about careers by using computer applications.
“The number of women in most of the sciences has plateaued, but in computing it’s actually fallen off. I thought that was strange, since computers are such a wide-open field. … In computers, just like any of the hard sciences, we see that girls are simply staying away.” Marino said. “In any career field they choose, the girls are going to have to be familiar with the new technology.”
About 30 girls completed each session, gaining exposure to computing in a variety of ways. Each girl received her own University of Minnesota e-mail account, communicated with a mentor in business and recorded her experience in a daily journal. The girls also did engineering projects using special computers provided by LEGO Systems Inc.
“They built miniature houses with light sensors and little garage doors that opened and closed. It was really neat. But the idea was to get them to engineer the models using the computer,” Marino said. “My issue was to get them involved in more than just what they get in school.”
The campers also received more individual support and attention than most schools can afford to give. Each session had 30 girls, two head teachers and five mentors from the Institute of Technology.
“That’s a 6-to-1 ratio, which I think is excellent,” Marino said. “Although it’s hard to quantify, the girls will surely benefit from seeing women in science careers using this technology.”
But Marino also understands the broader ranging benefits of encouraging girls to embrace the computer world.
“Computing offers women a flexibility of time and location. A woman can work at her computer at home and in the middle of the night if she needs to,” Marino said. “To me, computing is a women’s issue that way because women have child-care restrictions, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Marino and the camp’s co-director, Vivian Johnson of the Hamline Graduate School of Education, wanted the camp to be available to all girls. Because they were able to raise grant money from corporations and University programs for minorities and women, their mission was successful.
“The money allowed me to accept two-thirds of the girls on scholarship, which is what I wanted,” Marino said. “We had African-American, Native American, Hispanics, as well as girls from the ‘burbs. It was a nice mix. If the girls needed money to come to the camp, they got the money.”
But Marino realizes that assessing the ultimate effectiveness of the camp will come during the next 10 years.
“This is a longitudinal study and we’re glad the girls had fun, but the proof will be in seeing how successful they are in the long run,” she said.
The girls will keep their e-mail accounts for the next year and attend a variety of events planned as follow-ups. Also, Marino stated in a letter to parents that the program will offer a second level of the program next year that will build upon what the girls have learned this year.”
Marino hopes these girls will maintain relationships with their mentors and their interest in the hard sciences because of the attentive, positive exposure they got early on. She said, “The idea is to create a community where the girls feel they belong.”