+ NY School District Offers All-Girls Tech Program

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The Fairport Central School District in upstate New York has approved an aggressive approach to counteract the gender gap in technology education, according to Ernst Lamothe, Jr in the Democrat Chronicle.

The district is set to begin a two-year pilot program starting next fall, to create four all-girl technology courses (two in ninth grade and two in middle school).  Enrollment will be voluntary, in compliance with Title IX.

Dave Allyn, a special assignment administrator for the district says, “Girls sometimes won’t take technology classes because they don’t want to be the only girl in a class or in a technology club.  Job growth is happening again in engineering and some of the sciences where old stereotypes persist about those male-dominated fields, and we need to make our young women aware that there is an opportunity for them.” 

Although women make up more than half of the work force, they hold only 28 percent of technology positions (US Bureau of labor Statistics).  The number of young women studying computer science has fallen by more than 40 percent in the past two decades.

With computer support specialist, systems administrator and engineering positions expected to grow significantly by 2016, educators and employers worry that young women are failing to gain the necessary skills for those jobs.

Both the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology have less than 30 percent female enrollment in their undergraduate engineering programs.

More than 450 public schools nationwide offer single-sex academic classes, says the US Department of Education.  Research finds that female students learn differently, including preferring collaborative learning and quieter environments.

They are more concerned with complete understanding, doing quality work and helping others.  Male students tend to want to complete tasks as quickly as possible and move on.

Instead of trying to make girls fit into the existing system, school districts nationwide are changing to become more inviting for girls.  The solutions include instituting after-school technology clubs targeting young women as well as offering single-gender technology classes.

Universities also continue to push hard to attract more female engineers, since women make up less than 18 percent of six engineering fields, including single-digit percentages in civil and mechanical engineering.

Colleges and universities have started national programs such as “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” which is part of February’s Engineering Week.  The push continues in March, during Women’s History Month, when elementary and secondary schools can participate in live Web chats and teleconferences that encourage girls to consider engineering as a major.

The Rochester Institue of Technology began several initiatives six years ago.  They offer a middle school girls’ robotics program every winter, as well as an elementary design program camp.

At the Fairport schools, boys made up 90.3 percent of the enrollment in technology classes last year; this year, the proportion rose to 91.7 percent.   When the high school added a computer game design course to teach students programming skills, only three of the 115 enrollees were girls.

These single-gender classes will have the same curriculum and exams as their mixed-gender counterparts.  There will be two eighth-grade Technology for Girls classes that will last one quarter at two of the schools and a semester- or year-long course at the other two.

Fairport Middle School teachers purchased computer programming, designed by a Carnegie Mellon University professor, intended to appeal to girls.

According to Allyn, “Usually computer games are all about car crashes, armies, gunfights and sports, which boys tend to like, but not always young girls.” 

But this new system encourages people to write stories and put them into animation, which taps into the creativity and technology aspects for the female students.

The district has also added hand-drafting units for graphic arts and two environmental-related units, because women make up almost 50 percent of people in the field of environmental engineering.

Elizabeth Brown, a technology teacher at one of the schools, says schools need to follow that up by offering young girls more classes focused on green and alternative energy issues.  She has her class building solar-powered cars this year.

“If we are serious about this issue,” says Brown, “you have to make inroads with our young women now, and it must start as early as middle school.”

The school district also started a new middle school club called Cyberettes, connecting them with female computer students enrolled at RIT.  They work together on projects such as Web design, encryption, programming and video editing, giving young girls an introduction to technology careers and advice from women talking about their experience in a male-dominated culture.

Margaret Bailey, mechanical engineer professor at RIT and executive director of its Women in Engineering program, says

There are some girls who are going to do well regardless of putting them in single-gender class or not.  But for those who might not, what Fairport is doing makes sense, expecially at a young age, when you see girls losing interest in math and sciences because they are not getting much encouragement about pursuing careers in those areas.

Additional Facts:

According to the US Census Bureau, women make up a small proportion of professionals in key technology fields:

  • Physics: 21 percent
  • Computer science: 18.6 percent
  • Aerospace engineering: 11.5 percent
  • Civil Engineering: 9.5 percent
  • Mechanical engineering: 7.1 percent

sole source: article by Ernst Lamothe Jr at www.democratandchronicle.com on 11/16/09.

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