Building up girls' technology skills

Program exposes pupils to field to pique interest

February 13, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Lauren Priebe discovered new powers last week.

Using two pairs of pliers as levers, the eighth-grader and others at Corkran Middle School bent pennies until they snapped in half.

"I feel strong," the 13-year-old Severn resident said.

Organizers of Project ESTEEM want girls such as Lauren to maintain their strength for a more daunting task - overcoming the pressures that might discourage them from entering technical careers.

Project ESTEEM, or Enhancing Science & Technology Education & Exploration Mentoring, exposes seventh- and eighth-graders to technology through hands-on activities and field trips.

The program, a partnership between centers at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is targeting girls at two Anne Arundel County middle schools - Corkran and Brooklyn Park - and plans to expand to four additional schools in the Baltimore area over the next two years. Boys are also welcome.

Project ESTEEM is funded by a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Up to two dozen pupils will meet weekly for nearly four months, as well as for a month during the summer. Participants also will take field trips on weekends to places such as the Smithsonian Institution.

The goal is to reach girls in middle school before they decide that technology is not for them. For years, educators and school districts have been aware that the number of girls pursuing interests in science and math often dwindles as they proceed through high school.

"We know the numbers of women going into information technology have been declining for years, nationally as well as locally," said Claudia Morrell, director of UMBC's Center for Women and Information Technology. "The only way we're going to change that trend is to address the problem at the source - the decisions girls make at middle and high school."

Women seem to be pursuing higher education in some scientific fields more than others, Morrell said.

In 2001, about half the students who received bachelor's degrees in biological sciences and mathematics were women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fewer than a third of those who majored in computer science were female, however, down from nearly 37 percent in 1985.

"All we really have to do is let girls know that they're welcome in those fields," she added.

Given the projected need for information-technology workers, the National Science Foundation developed the Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program to fund programs around the country that encourage students to develop their skills and knowledge. ESTEEM is Maryland's only youth-based project funded through this national program.

Morrell's group administers the program with The Shriver Center, which uses UMBC's resources to address social issues in the community, said Mark Terranova, Shriver's associate director. The Shriver Center has led programs at these two Anne Arundel middle schools in the past, he said.

Another component of the program is introducing girls to women who are preparing for careers in information or computer science, manufacturing or engineering - or those who are in the workplace at businesses in the area.

A graduate student leads the sessions, assisted by several undergraduates. Terranova said this allows the pupils to understand that people like them pursue science.

"I just want to get them as excited as I am," said Lindsey Mannchen, 21, who is majoring in information systems and psychology at UMBC. She said she was one of two females in her upper-level programming classes at her Waldorf high school.

Mannchen continued pursuing the field, she said, although "there was an undertone of `girls can't do it.'"

Corkran teacher Chris Nalley said he has noticed firsthand the drop-off in interest among female students in science. At the middle school, his advanced earth science classes are nearly 70 percent female. When he taught high school physics, he added, only 15 percent of the students were female.

But Nalley said he encourages his students to press on.

"I want somebody to send me a postcard from Mars," he said.

On Thursday, a group of girls gathered in Nalley's classroom. After a snack and icebreaker, the pupils broke into teams to see who could construct the tallest tower.

The groups then watched several videos about "simple machines" - items that make work easier, such as inclined planes, screws and levers.

Nalley's demonstration of practical uses for levers, such as bending a penny, drew a spontaneous "Oh, cool" from the audience.

They then assembled small models that incorporated simple machines, such as a Ferris wheel, an eggbeater and an elevator.

At future after-school and summer sessions, the pupils will study programmable cars and circuits, kites and sound engineering. They will also assemble a telephone and learn how it works.

Such exercises should help girls "overcome their fear of handling and banging and taking things apart," Morrell said.

The girls were enthusiastic last week as they snapped together the Tinkertoy-like pieces of their projects.

Samantha Corum, a sixth-grader from Glen Burnie, said she begged her teacher to let her join the program, although at 11, she is younger than the target audience.

Said Corum: "I want to show them that girls can do it, too."

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