IBM brings IT to an elementary level

Computers are cool, and it’s time more girls realize it, according to Jelena Lukovic.

Lukovic recently attended IBM’s EXITE camp for girls at the Markham, Ont.-based research facility. The goal of the camp is to get 13-year-old Lukovic and her peers more interested in computers and technology.

Rena Chenoy, program manager for IBM’s Women in Technology program (Grades 8 to 12), said she has heard there is still a decline in the number of girls entering maths and science programs.

She said IBM has created a strategy to “fill the pipeline” by trying to get girls interested in these programs at a young age.

“Research has shown that girls are still dropping their maths and sciences. This is not getting better, and that is a big concern,” Chenoy said.

She said it is important that IT companies talk to girls and try to get them interested in technology.

“There are really three objectives to all of our programs, including the camp,” Chenoy said. “One is don’t drop math and science arbitrarily. Think twice. Number two is that careers in the next decade are going to be predominantly in technology so be aware of all of your career options. The third objective is to rid girls of their misconceptions about IT. They think it is a nerdy, geeky profession. So we try to create role models to overcome that.”

Kimberley Messer, who is co-chair of the camp, noted that another problem keeping girls interest in IT at the forefront, is boys.

“As a former teacher, and from reading studies, one of the problems is that the boys can dominate activities. This situation (the camp) allows the girls to be a part of things without worrying about boys’ reactions,” she said.

Messer said many of the activities were very popular, including building a PC and building a robot using Lego’s MindStorm building sets.

Lukovic was definitely a fan of that activity. “I really liked building the robots. We had to fight the other teams’ robots. You had to build this sensor thing so your robot didn’t go out of the lines.”

Lukovic, who is in Grade 8 at Etobicoke, Ont.’s John G. Althouse said she was told about the camp at school and was automatically interested.

“I like math and science. My parents are programmers so I work on the computer a lot,” she said.

Michelle McMartin agreed it was an interesting idea right away.

“I didn’t really know what we would be doing, but I figured this would get me more involved with computers,” the 13-year-old said.

McMartin, who is in Grade 8 at Mississauga, Ont., Hazel McCallion Middle School, said she really enjoyed putting together a PC.

“I had never taken a computer apart before. It was neat to actually touch the hardware. It was really strange and really cool. It seemed really simple. When you think about how much a computer costs, you think it’s got to be really technical and now we’re doing this,” McMartin said.

Both girls are thinking about careers in IT. McMartin mentioned engineering as a possibility. She said girls have to understand computers are not just for geeks anymore.

“I guess we have to show people that it’s not geekish. It’s the new technology; it’s the new 2001 thing. It’s going to take over whether we like it or not and it really is the coolest thing,” she said.

Faye West said it was wonderful to know that girls were saying that. The past-president of CIPS said it’s also nice to see businesses realizing that there is a real issue with women in IT.

“They are starting to realize that if they don’t encourage women to enter this field and they don’t make it a friendly environment workplace-wise, they are missing out on half the population,” West said. “There’s a skill shortage out there and you want to have as many candidates as possible.”

She also applauded the decision to segregate girls for some of these programs. “Girls behave differently when it’s just other girls. They will reveal what they think about issues. They ask more questions. There’s less concern about what boys will think of them.”

She said companies have to keep girls in mind when building games as well. She noted gaming is actually one thing many girls don’t find attractive about computers.

“Most girls do not want to play the shoot-’em-up style of games,” West said.

Chenoy agreed with West and said there are games out there that girls would be interested in. They just are not the ones they make commercials about.

She said everything in the industry, as far as promoting women in IT, is getting better. “I just wish it would go faster.”

The EXITE camps were held at more than 21 locations worldwide this year.