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Inside the current issue:

Barriers to Choice:
How Adolescent Girls View Science Careers

A Welcoming Community:
Engaging Adult Females in Informal Science

Social Science:
Observing Women and Girls in the Museum

The Universe of Making Things: Toward a Female-Friendly Technology

A Richer Vision:
Broadening Women's View of Technology

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Browse Back IssuesASTC Dimensions: May/June 2005
  May/June 2005 Dimensions

May/June 2005
Closing the Gap:
Reaching Female Audiences
in Science Centers

A Bridge to Technology: Designing a Program That Attracts Girls

By Linda Kekelis, Etta Heber,
and Jeri Countryman

Look in on a typical high school computer programming class or science center robotics session, and you are likely to see a roomful of boys. These classes are not limited to males, of course, but the girls aren't there. Don't they want to learn about technology?

At Chabot Space & Science Center, we were offering a variety of technology-based classes for elementary, middle, and high school students, but girls weren't signing up. To find out why, staff arranged to meet with young women, aged 12 to 15, in our Oakland, California community. From these focus groups, we learned that girls are indeed interested in technology—what doesn't attract them is the way it is usually presented. For example, they are interested in technology that serves a social benefit, but they don't perceive computer science as having this potential.

Based on this input, we came up with Techbridge, an after-school technology program tailored specifically to the interests of girls in grades 5 to 12. Now in its fifth year, Techbridge serves more than 250 girls in Oakland and nearby communities. Sponsors include the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and local business partners.

  Techbridge Participants
As they assemble their LED kits, Techbridge participants at Washington Manor Middle School master new tools and learn how basic electronic circuits work.
Photo courtesy
Chabot Space & Science Center

The power of personal contact

As we prepared to launch Techbridge, it was especially important that we reach out to girls who might not be inclined to enroll on their own. After all, even the most wonderful program won't do much good if girls won't give it a chance. So we went to schools that had signed up to participate and talked with girls during lunch.

What they told us echoed the concerns we had heard in our focus groups. Some girls didn't think they were suited for the program because they weren't "good at technology." Others had had a bad experience being the only girl in a computer class where speed and competition ruled. Lack of confidence and misconceptions about the lifestyle of computer scientists held some girls back; for others, technology just didn't seem compatible with their interests.

The key to recruiting these girls turned out to be reassurance from friendly Techbridge staff and a personal invitation from a trusted teacher. Promotional techniques like taking digital photos of the girls or passing out treats also helped create a "buzz" that got girls to take notice.

Techbridge sessions are held once a week at an elementary, middle, or high school site. A classroom teacher and a technical advisor from Chabot co-host each session. This is not a drop-in program. Experience has taught us that long-term participation leads to significant benefits, so we ask our girls and their families to make a yearlong commitment.

Activities are varied: One month the girls may learn HTML and create web pages; the next month they may take apart household appliances or fix the drives on their school's computers. Rounding out the program are field trips to work sites and visits with role models currently working in science and technology. These activities introduce the girls to different career options and inspire them to look into advanced classes and internships.

The program purposely includes the people who are involved in the girls' lives on a daily basis—teachers and parents/caregivers. For teachers, we offer training, resources, and curriculum. For parents, we schedule events that celebrate their daughters' achievements and workshops that offer academic and career guidance.

  Techbridge Participants
Another Washington Manor Middle School student shows off her completed LED circuit.
Photo courtesy
Chabot Space & Science Center

Three keys to success

Because Techbridge meets outside of school hours, we thought hard about ways to keep the girls engaged. Three main ingredients make up our recipe for success:

Keeping it fun. Hands-on projects allow the girls to master a range of technical skills. How many girls can say that they put together their own telephone? For Techbridge participants, it's often the first time they have assembled an electronics kit, but with teamwork each girl eventually has a working telephone she can keep. To test their new phones, the girls line up to call home. The excitement they feel is matched by the amazement of parents who hear a daughter say, "I'm calling you on the phone I just made in Techbridge!"

Digital photography, another favorite activity, works well to engage girls who haven't had much computer experience. Focus, click, and upload—in a matter of minutes, a new user can experience success and discover an outlet for self-expression.

Once each girl has amassed a photo collection of people and places important to her, the group is ready to work on projects. Photo calendars become holiday presents, a digital quilt adorns a school bulletin board, and self-portraits accompany student biographies sent to career role models in advance of a visit. Photos also enhance digital stories about important issues like family, friends, body image, and relationships with boys.

Bolstering confidence. Self-esteem grows out of working on projects that require problem solving and perseverance. Building a mechanical robot or soldering an LED kit may seem daunting at first to a girl who hasn't had the chance to tinker with tools or build with LEGOs. When the technology doesn't work right away, some girls are overcome by frustration and want to give up. But it is just such challenges that help girls believe in themselves.

We saw this the day our girls launched the kites they had spent a week designing and building. When some of the kites wouldn't fly or crashed after takeoff, we offered no easy answers. Instead, we encouraged them to trouble-shoot their problems using our cheat sheet. A single girl took up the challenge and modified the bridle point on the keel of her kite. One by one, the others followed her, trying to figure out the flaws in their designs. By the session's end, each kite had had a successful flight.

Managing the social dynamics. Any-one who has worked with girls will tell you that relationships and group interaction are important to them. Because Techbridge reflects the diversity of our neighborhoods, it is especially important to build a sense of community quickly and to break up any friendship cliques or racial divisions.

To accomplish this, we start each meeting with a social activity. One week, the girls are paired and asked to find two experiences they have in common. The next week, they are invited to talk about their names. The lesson is that while names and backgrounds may be different, everyone shares some common ground, such as being named after a grandmother or liking soccer and math.

We pay careful attention to the social dynamics and partner the girls in ways that help them feel comfortable, meet success with technology, and practice teamwork. Initially, girls may not want to move outside their comfort zone, but with practice they come to appreciate the opportunity to be part of a Techbridge team.

A community of commitment

Although Chabot Space & Science Center is only a few miles from the homes of the girls we serve, many of the Techbridge families had never come to visit our exhibits or participate in our programs. We set out to change that by sponsoring family nights, complete with presentations by the girls, at both the schools and the science center.

At first, we relied on flyers to invite parents to these events. But when the RSVPs didn't materialize in the numbers we expected, we began calling the girls' homes. Just as personal invitations had turned out to be important in making girls feel welcome, the personal approach also turned out to be key to engaging families. The calls doubled our attendance numbers. One mother told us she hadn't thought the flyers about family events were meant for her. It had never occurred to us that someone might feel this way; the lesson was an important one.

As part of the Techbridgee evaluation process, parents take part in interviews and focus groups, helping staff to better understand their own perspectives and better serve both parents and daughters. We find that the majority of families are eager to support their girls. In fact, some teachers have told us that the Techbridge family events, where our staff has the chance to meet and talk with families individually, are the best-attended events at their schools.

We also find that, after a school encounter, parents are more willing to come to the science center for Techbridge-sponsored events. Some families have even bought museum memberships, and one parent became a science center volunteer as a result of her daughter's participation in the program.

By connecting school with the science center, Techbridge truly serves as a bridge to science and technology for girls and their families.

At the Chabot Space & Science Center, Oakland, California, Etta Heber is director of programs, and Linda Kekelis and Jeri Countryman are project director and project coordinator, respectively, for Techbridge.
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