Hoping girls get a kick out of computers

UMBC event tries to develop pupils' interest in IT careers

April 08, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow morning, more than 600 middle school girls will converge onto the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus for Computer Mania Day, designed to increase girls' awareness of information technology and bolster their confidence in tackling IT-related courses.

So take that, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers.

Summers' comments in January - speculating that innate gender differences explain why fewer women are in math and science fields - only strengthened the resolve of officials at UMBC's Center for Women and Information Technology.

Established in 1998 to ensure women's full participation in all aspects of IT, the center believes the first step in addressing the dearth of women in this field is to make technology more enjoyable for girls at the middle school level. That, after all, is a time girls begin to grapple with self-esteem issues and career decisions.

"The passion of the topic comes among parents who are very concerned about their daughters getting great jobs and thinking very early about these career opportunities," said Claudia J. Morrell, director of CWIT.

At Computer Mania Day, UMBC students and community members will demonstrate how IT affects every aspect of daily life and how women have had successful careers in the industry.

For the past two years, the event has featured a national celebrity to deliver a you-can-do-anything message and raise awareness of IT.

This year, the guest is soccer phenom Brandi Chastain, best known for scoring the winning penalty-kick goal in the 1999 Women's World Cup, then ripping off her jersey in celebration.

While Chastain isn't a scientist, she realizes the importance of having role models to emulate - in any pursuit.

"I remember a day when I couldn't find on television or in the newspaper someone who resembled me that I could stand up and cheer about and mimic my game after," said Chastain, who is an analyst for Major League Soccer games on ABC and ESPN.

"I want girls to see [female] mathematicians and scientists and know they are making a huge difference," Chastain said.

CWIT has been active in those efforts long before Summers' comments.

"He has helped to refocus the rest of the world on the issues of women and science and technology," said Morrell. "He just brought to the forefront something that's been subtly going on in the background for years, the subtle discrimination, lack of belief, lack of support, lack of awareness of the barriers women face."

Dana Douglas, a sophomore from Cumberland and Computer Mania Day volunteer, can attest to that. She recalled how she was reticent to raise her hand to answer questions in her high school computer science classes, where she was sometimes the only female student.

Now, the information systems major works in an after-school program in Anne Arundel County that exposes middle school girls to sciences and technology.

"Coming here has given me more confidence, especially having all the people around telling us that women can do this and making friends with people already in the field," she said. "I can see they've done it and follow in their footsteps."

Computer Mania Day will be held at UMBC's Retriever Activities Center from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 410-455-2822.

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