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Utah tech camps: Where the girls aren't

Published July 27, 2014 8:20 pm

Technology • As women lag in tech fields, educators hope girls learn programming skills for future careers.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A clunky LEGO robot slowly rolled along a path outlined with two strips of blue tape. Seconds later, Arissa Cooper and her teammates spotted a programming mistake and snatched it up.

"It was a little mind-racking when you had to change it, fix it," she said. "We just thought it through, like, do we need [to make it turn at] a 40-degree angle or something else?"

Arissa, 11, was attending her third Geek Squad Academy, a summer camp put on by Best Buy and Junior Achievement of Utah. It aims to help students become confident in their ability to learn about technology, a goal shared by organizers of similar Utah summer programs, educators and policy makers who see computer programming skills as crucial for future careers — especially for girls, as women lag in lucrative tech fields.

Similarly, among the Utah campers building robots, designing video games and experimenting with 3-D printers, boys continue to outnumber girls.

Where are their sisters? • David Johnson runs the GREAT — Graphics and Robotics Exploration with Amazing Technology — summer camp at the University of Utah for kids who want to learn about programming.

This year about 600 students enrolled — and about 18 percent are girls.

It's strange, he said, because girls have unique skills and perform well.

"It's almost always the girls camp that does the best; they're more competitive," he said. "They're a little better at staying on task and persevering."

As he helped judge First LEGO League competition at the U. this year, he said, he found the best teams included girls or were exclusively girls.

But he said he doesn't see the parents of boys encouraging their daughters to participate.

"I know these boys have sisters. It doesn't seem to cross the parents' minds to send the girls to the camps as well," he said. "It's really unfair to be eliminating a large portion of the population from trying [technology] out."

He's unsure what other reasons may limit girls' interest.

"Something is keeping them away," he said, "and the ones that are here are having fun."

'So underrepresented' • The U.'s video game design program is considered one of the best in the country. The summer game design camp for ages 11 to 13 drew the largest enrollment, with 42 kids — and just two were girls.

Jake Muehle, a recent graduate of the master's program in the Entertainment Arts and Engineering department, is helping teach sessions for middle school and high school students this summer.

"The girls are typically really bright and motivated," he said. "Because of their age, they're more mature so they do a lot less goofing around than boys, who a lot of the time are there to kind of mess around."

The game design session for ages 14 to 16 had 35 students, with four girls. A computer graphics camp for high school students drew 28 teens, including nine girls.

The consumer base for video games is about evenly split between male and female players, Muehle said, but women represent less than 10 percent of the video gaming workforce . "This consumer population is so underrepresented in the industry," he said.

'A drastic change' • At Geek Squad Academy, Arissa and her team quickly reprogrammed their robot with LEGO Mindstorms software and corrected its route.

She likes working in a group, she said, because "we get to share each other's ideas and new ideas can come from those. We have a better chance of figuring it out."

She was one of 49 girls and almost 100 boys at the academy, sponsored by the nonprofit Junior Achievement of Utah at Discovery Gateway Children's Museum. Because the program is trying to spark girls' interest in technology, all the girls on the wait list were admitted, said Becky Harding, of Junior Achievement.

Students ages 9 to 14 learned about robotics, 3-D imaging and printing, digital music and film and digital responsibility. Arissa, of South Jordan, said she enjoyed learning about 3-D imaging and robots. "It's so cool to learn you can program robots to do what you want."

Becky Ruff, a parent volunteer at the academy, said she encourages her daughters, ages 11, 10 and 8, and other girls to study technology, make mistakes and show off their smarts.

"As these girls mature, they feel like their role has to change," the Lehi mother of three said. "They have to be the cute, silly girl versus the smart, awesome girl."

To help fight peer pressure, the academy separated the campers into two groups of girls and three groups of boys, Ruff said. "It takes a lot to change social pressure," she said. "There are these social norms that girls aren't programmers."

Ruff said all three of her daughters will attend Geek Academy next summer, in part because at $55 per child, it's one of the least expensive camps around.

The Entertainment Arts and Engineering course is one of the more expensive — $374. Most GREAT camp classes at the University of Utah range from $135 for elementary-age children to $220 for middle school and high school students.

National Geek Squad Academy agent Brittani Uribe cites herself as a success story for the program, which she first attended when she was 17. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in communications and has been a Geek Squad agent with Best Buy for three years.

"You can see a drastic change" in girls who attend, she said while working at the Salt Lake City academy. "When they come in, the girls seem disinterested, and at the end, little girls come to me and say, 'I want to be a Geek Squad agent.' "

She added, "My message to these girls is that you can do whatever you want.

dmanley@sltrib.com

Twitter: @daniellekmanley _

It's not too late

P The Graphics and Robotic Exploration with Amazing Technology (GREAT) camps at the University of Utah have a few classes left in beginning and advanced Scratch, a computer programming language. The classes start Monday. There's also a FIRST LEGO League (FLL) course the same week, teaching students about the techniques of robotics to prepare them for the annual FLL competition.

More information is available from Dave Johnson at 801-585-1726.

The University of Utah's Entertainment Arts and Engineering department has one game design class beginning Aug. 4 with slots still open. Students ages 14 to 16 spend a week learning to program video games. The program is designed so that each student walks away with his or her own game.

Youth Education at the U. also offers tech camps in August; learn more at https://continue.utah.edu/youth.