Animation aims to draw more girls to technology

UMBC adds new feature to Computer Mania Day

April 28, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

"Jennifer Webb" introduced herself and began asking questions.

What's your name and where do you work? What kind of things do you do at work?

"My name is Chantelle, and I work at Northrop Grumman Information Technology," answered Pamela Ezzat, the director of K-12 programs at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was participating in the mock panel. "I travel all over the world, and my company pays for it."

Six questions later, the discussion ended. But while the interviewer led the conversation, two students led the interviewer.

"Jennifer" is a digitally animated character - a computer composite of a typical middle school student. And on this day, she didn't make a move without her "puppeteers," UMBC students Renata Melillo and Samantha Duvall.

The character was created to get more girls interested in technology. And it will make its debut next week at Computer Mania Day at UMBC.

The free event, sponsored by UMBC's Center for Women and Information Technology and scheduled for next Saturday, will include hands-on, high-tech activities for adults and children. Jennifer Webb will be projected onto a screen and will interact with the audience.

"I think Jennifer Webb will have a great impact," said Dan Bailey, the director of the Imaging Resolution Center at UMBC. "This character is leading-edge stuff. I don't know of anyone else who is doing it."

Jennifer attends Computer Mania Middle School. She likes algebra and does OK, if not great, in the classroom.

"We wanted to create a character who is average and not necessarily an A-plus student," Ezzat said.

Faculty and students watched videotapes of middle school girls from previous Computer Mania Day events to get the slang, mannerisms and fashions of middle school girls, she said.

"We want the girls to see themselves in this character," Ezzat said, adding that the character was created to "help bring technology to life for girls."

Jennifer is one of four characters named by middle school students in previous Computer Mania days

The others are: Roxy Santana, a musician; Jewel Plummer Cobb, an African-American girl who loves chemistry; and MP3 also known as Mary Pat the 3rd, who legally downloads her music.

The characters were created by a team that includes computer programmers, students, educators, and business members.

Although unsure of what to expect in the beginning, Melillo and Duvall joined the group as puppeteers. Using joysticks, and a foot pedal, Melillo controls Jennifer's head, body and eyebrow movements. Duvall is the voice of the character. She speaks into a microphone, and the on-screen character's mouth moves in synch.

"Anything to do with puppetry, I jump at the chance to participate," said Melillo, 20, a junior who is studying acting. "It is inspiring for me to have the opportunity to link the art world and technology."

Duvall, who is also an acting major, is impressed with how it all works.

"I think it is so amazing that they can put together shapes and create something lifelike," said the 21-year-old senior from Columbia. "It's like magic."

Next Saturday's event is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the University Center, and other exhibits will be on display at the Retriever Activity Center.

After Jennifer is introduced to the students at the event, the puppeteers will be introduced, and a couple of students will be allowed to work with Jennifer.

"We want the kids to see how the animation works from both sides," Ezzat said. "We want them to see how much fun technology can be."

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