“Computer Camp: For Girls Only!” by Mercuri

  • ©Rebecca Mercuri




    Computer Camp: For Girls Only!



    A Web-based computer camp for girls only (7th – 10th grade) was offered during the summer of 1999 in the Philadelphia region. The campers learned HTML and JavaScript programming in order to understand basic computer concepts, while enjoying individual creative exploration and developing Web pages. The female orientation was intended to assist in thwarting the image of computer and math-related activities as male dominions. 2D and 3D graphic design, as well as interactivity and human interface concepts, were emphasized. Programming topics included: language syntax, functions, block structure, sequential and iterative statement sequences, and variables. Computer fundamentals (such as word processing, and basic understanding of hardware components) were summarized. Students were assigned female mentors who communicated with them via email and chat rooms during the camp week. The goal was to have each girl create a personal Web page.
    Computer camps have been traditionally viewed as a haven for sallow-faced, antisocial, male teenagers who prefer to bask in the glow of a terminal rather than in the summer’s sun. Often, this male orientation is enhanced by promotional materials that emphasize activities like “hacking” and “Dungeons and Dragons” in addition to traditional programming. Although some of the camps are better than others in attracting females, it is a matter of serious concern that they may be among the factors contributing to the early perception of computer programming as an inappropriate career choice for females. Even worse may be the adverse impact that the reduction in hands-on recreational computer time has on the ability of females to compete in higher-level programming courses as they proceed through the curriculum. These assertions find support in studies indicating that although males and females elect high school computer courses in equal numbers, only a third of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science and computer engineering are issued to women. This disparity begins as early as the freshman year, when about half of the qualified males choose scientific majors, with only a sixth of the qualified females making similar selections.
    In an effort to reverse this trend, a number of organizations have attempted early intervention programs. One of the more notable of these is the Math Options program, now in its ninth year at Pennsylvania State University. This project targets seventh-
    grade girls, who are brought to college campuses to attend a day of activities, panel sessions, and workshops led by women who have chosen math-related careers. There, the girls are given an opportunity to communicate one-on-one with the women about
    their professions and lives. Follow-up sessions and mentoring relationships are also provided. This project has met with tremendous positive approval, and serves many hundreds of girls each year.
    Having been involved with the Math Options program since its inception, I wanted to extend this concept within the computer camp scenario. One of the locations expressing interest in offering this program was Mercer County Community College (MCCC), a suburban campus in central New Jersey serving a diverse student population. Among the many non-credit offerings is a group of summer courses called Camp College for junior high and high school students. For a number of years, MCCC has offered various week-long computer camps entitled Computer Hackers Workshops, which emphasize programming in the Pascal and C languages. The project goal is development of a computer game. Interestingly, to the best of the program directors’ recollections, not a single female had ever applied for admission to any computer camp session. Clearly these demographics indicated that something was amiss.
    The first step, therefore, was to develop a theme that might better attract the large untapped market of young female computer users. The Internet and World Wide Web seemed to promise a viable educational scenario, since its multimedia presentations, timeliness, and easy accessibility attracts both girls and boys, yet its verbal orientation, particularly in chat sessions and via email, provides an especially strong female appeal. Also, the slight edge in verbal skills among girls of high school age possibly makes them better “surfers” than boys.
    Penn State chose seventh grade as its target age group for the Math Options program because, at that point, the sex-based math and verbal differentiation is not yet as noticeable. Our camp would include students between 7th and 10th grades, since that was currently a successful age group for the male attendees. Since same-sex schooling has been shown to enhance participation and learning by females in male-dominated subject areas (such as mathematics and science), it was decided to offer the Web-based camp for girls only. This labeling in the promotional brochure was intended to further attract the attention of female students and their parents.
    A few years earlier, I co-developed a Web-based “Introduction to Computer Programming” course at Drexel University, aimed at college freshmen. This course used HTML and the JavaScript language to teach such concepts as language syntax, functions, block structure, sequential and iterative statement sequences, and variables. Computer fundamentals (such as word processing, and basic understanding of hardware components) were summarized. Good human interface design and interactivity were emphasized, through the inclusion of tables, forms, and hyperlinks in Web pages. Students were provided with software tools for 2D graphics, and they were encouraged to explore use of original or customized imagery in their Web presentations. Some of the more advanced students surfed for animations and other code that they linked to or modified and included directly in their pages. The materials developed for this introductory course were simplified somewhat and used for the programming training portions of the computer camp.
    Prior work for the graphics portion of the computer camp was based on my earlier collaborative effort involving the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia and the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View, California. Here,
    cartoonist Mike Mosher instructed students to develop images that depicted their fears. These drawings were then enhanced with sound and 3D graphics in order to form a kiosk-style display. This successful exploration with evocative feelings should transfer well into the Web modality.
    The Franklin Institute, which serves nearly a million visitors each year, is currently involved with the National Science Partnership for Girl Scouts and Science Museums. Girl Scouts in regional clubs (from Maine to Virginia) have the opportunity to participate in educational programs at the museum, including overnight camp-ins and mentoring sessions by women in science-related careers. Illustration 1 shows a recent lecture/demonstration about Web programming to a group of Cadettes and their troop leaders.
    The Girls Only Computer Camp had as its goal that each participant develop her own original Web page, from scratch (using a non-WYSIWYG editor), around a personal theme. The campers began the week by learning how to use the browser and search engines in order to surf the Web for specific topics (in a scavenger-hunt fashion).The girls were directed to specifically female and kid-oriented sites and permitted to explore for items of their own interest (parental control software was used to insure some level of safety).The campers were given access to chat rooms, email, and digital whiteboards, in order to facilitate cooperative work within the group.
    Each camper was assigned an adult female mentor, similar to the Math Options scenario, who greeted her mentorees electronically and remained available for email consultation throughout the week (and possibly also after the camp was over). Various hardware and software tools (including 2D and 3D graphics, digital still pictures, animated videos, and audio) were explored for development of multimedia presentations. While the students began to storyboard their concepts for their Web pages, they were provided with small programming tasks in HTML and JavaScript that taught them the language basics. At the end of the camp week, the Web pages were mounted, and the students and their mentors had an opportunity to look at and interact with each others’ work.
    The collected set of pages was posted on the Web. Results of the program to date are reviewed in a Classroom presentation, including the course syllabus, examples of training materials, and student work.

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