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Youth Tech Camps Article Youth Tech Camps: An IBM Initiative

Sparkle lip gloss, peanut butter sandwiches,
laser optics and circuit board technology?

Times have changed. Women are driving trucks their boyfriends aren’t allowed to touch, holding political office and managing multi-billion dollar companies. Despite this progress, the percentage of women in the overall IT workforce fell from 41 percent to 34.9 percent in the last six years, with women earning only 22 percent of the computer science and engineering undergraduate degrees in 2000. Over the last decade, fewer women pursued science and engineering at the university level, although during the next decade, one in ten jobs will be in the technology field.

What began as a commitment to encourage more women into the fields of computer science and mathematics has blossomed into a family of programs that are not only targeting young women, but also reaching out to all youth with disabilities. The initial hallmark program is the EXITE (EXploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) Camp. This week-long camp encourages adolescent girls in the U.S. and overseas to explore careers in math, science and technology. This summer, approximately 1,000 seventh and eighth grade girls from around the world attended the camp. The middle school-aged girls had an opportunity to explore technology and work collaboratively on math and science-related projects. They received hands-on experience, encouragement and enthusiasm, while learning how to break down and rebuild computers, construct websites, make liquid nitrogen ice cream and develop presentations. The goal is to encourage their interest in mathematics and science, and give them an in-depth look at the numerous career opportunities in the field of technology. This year, EXITE Camps took place at 30 sites, including camps in Sandston, South Africa; Greenock, Scotland; Manila, the Philippines; Santiago, Chile and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Launched in 1999, EXITE Camps are an extension of IBM’s commitment to reach groups that are underrepresented in the technical workforce and to train and recruit individuals from those constituencies for technical careers. “The pool of skilled technology workers is shrinking, partially because fewer women are entering the industry,” said Janet Perna, general manager, Data Management, IBM Software Group and the company’s lead executive for Women in Technology initiatives. “Studies reveal that our pipeline is most vulnerable in the middle school years when girls steer away from math and science. This limits their chances to pursue future engineering or technical degrees, and in turn, diminishes our future talent pool. EXITE is one way that we can help spark interest in the sciences and build their confidence.” IBM hopes that by identifying 12 and 13 year-old girls with an interest or proficiency in math and science, it can prepare members of the next generation to fill the technical pipeline by introducing them to the potential of technology as well as the fun and exciting things they can do with it right now, and exposing them to women who have successful technology careers.

During EXITE Camps, more than 1,000 IBM employees, female and male, will participate as volunteers—developing, coordinating and overseeing such activities as webpage and computer chip design, laser optics, animation, robotics and projects working with hardware and software. A variety of IBM technologies are introduced, including TryScience.org, a website designed to make learning science more fun.

Upon conclusion of the camps, participants are able to stay in touch with technical women at IBM through IBM MentorPlace, a global online mentoring program that matches IBM employees with students and teachers. Through the program, IBM employees engage in structured online activities that include tutoring, mentoring and classroom projects with teachers and/or students. The idea is to foster ongoing relationships and provide female role models for young women at a time when they are making important decisions about their future. Online communication tools are being used to cultivate the camper and IBM volunteer relationships in a manner that fits the busy lives of both the students and our employees. These activities are intended to extend the one-week experience the girls have during the EXITE Camp through the ensuing school year.

This is the first year the EXITE program has tailored a camp to reach girls with disabilities. Hosted at the PACER Center, a non-profit organization that serves children and young adults with disabilities and their families, 20 girls with varying disabilities attended the camp. Doing many of the same activities as campers at other sites, the girls participated in tearing down a PC, building a website, learning about circuit board technology and networking with visiting guests and speakers.

“For the past two years I’ve seen the world of opportunities that math, science and technology open up for girls at the Rochester site,” said Heidi Kraemer, IBM manager, Minnesota Community Relations and the coordinator for the EXITE program in Bloomington. “This camp will target a group of girls for whom these opportunities generally have not been available. It will provide a wonderful chance for them to experience math, science and technology and to recognize the wealth of careers and possibilities that are now open
to them.”

Millie DesBiens, program manager for Global Workforce Diversity, works with people with disabilities and was inspired by the model of the EXITE Camp to create a similar program geared to youth with disabilities, both boys and girls. Already under way, the program is experiencing tremendous success. “This program is great because the kids have had the opportunity to really think about what they are going to do when they grow up and how they can take their strengths and their gifts and turn them into something they can go out and get paid for. Technology is how these kids are going to access and level the playing field,” said Jeanann Vogelman whose son recently participated in a camp.

While the ultimate goal is to inspire youth into careers of computer science and mathematics, the most important goal is that they are simply inspired. “Their methods have worked very effectively, which is very important for our family. For him to get excited over academics is a rare thing,” adds Vogelman.

ABILITY’s Chet Cooper visited the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, the site of the technology camp for youth with disabilities, and spoke with Millie DesBiens on her vision for the camp, what they’ve learned from their experiences and how peanut butter and lemons can lead a 12 year-old to a career in computer science.

Chet Cooper: What lead IBM to expand on the EXITE model and create a technology camp for youth with
disabilities?

Millie DesBiens: IBM has a task force for people with disabilities and it’s very vital to the task force to be actively seeking people with disabilities in the market place. We feel hiring is an area where we really need to make the most impact. We are already hiring people with disabilities, but we could be doing a much better job. There’s a company internship program and a recruiting program. What we are finding when we are going out to the colleges to recruit people with disabilities is that many of these people are trapped into the social science area. We could do more to encourage students if they have the aptitude and desire to enter the math and science arena—as those are the students that we’re looking to hire. We’ve learned that students need to enter the pipeline earlier, because waiting until college is too late. We started by looking at the practices of what the other constituencies are doing and picked two. One of them is the EXITE Camp program and the other is an online mentoring program through IBM Enterprises geared toward girls in middle and high school. There are also five locations that have mentor programs for students with disabilities.

CC: How will this differ from the EXITE Camp taking place in Rochester?

MDB: My focus is both boys and girls with disabilities. I have less students and it is less time, three days as opposed to five. The length and type of some of the activities had to be altered to make the project accessible to students with disabilities.

CC: Where do you see this program headed?

MDB: Last year, IBM Brazil had an EXITE Camp where one of the girls was blind. This year, we’re running another camp in Rochester, Minnesota with the PACER organization. The programs have been altered to accommodate the various disabilities the students may have. I’m running this pilot to see if this is something that we can replicate and continue to spread. We’d begin in the U.S. and then go global.

CC: What criteria does IBM utilize in identifying which students will attend?

MDB: The experts at the individual schools select which children would be most suited for the camp. Not all of the students would necessarily be able to benefit from the program and not all would be interested in technology.

CC: How long has your staff been in preparation for the camps?

MDB: We’ve been meeting weekly for at least the last five months to set up this program because we really started from scratch. We looked at the EXITE Camp model and we quickly learned that nobody knew if many of the activities were accessible or not. I contacted Donald McCoy, who is part of Global Diversity. Donald goes into schools and organizations and demonstrates the robotics; this is something he’s done often with children with disabilities. I also called on Guido Coronn—he is with the Worldwide Accessibility Center in Austin, Texas. We decided what we thought might work and then presented our ideas to the school. We went through each module and they gave us feedback as to how it might be made accessible. We also wanted to ensure we weren’t duplicating the material they were already receiving at school and that it would be new and relevant.

CC: What types of projects did the team decide on?

MDB: Our opening exercise was to actually take apart a computer in order to understand the components and how they work. After the experience, the students were asked how they would build it differently if they were designing it. The wires are colored wires and some of them do not have any texture. One of the ideas was to texturize the wires so you could recognize the different colors by the different textures.

CC: The wire idea alone is a good example of how we could all benefit from universal design. If there were a power outage and you’re trying to feel around for a
particular wire, it would be helpful if there was an
identifier beyond simply color.

MDB: Exactly. That’s what our disability center is doing. We’re trying to design things interproduct, so you have the choice of turning special features on or off as you want.
The next exercise was for the students to surf the Internet using the JAWS software which makes the Internet more accessible. We also gave each child a copy of the software; being able to access the Internet opens up another world.

CC: Any other interesting experiments?

MDB: We had three people from IBM Research come in and do some experiments. This gave the kids an opportunity to see what scientists and computer programmers do. For example, one of the activities was how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They had to think through the process like a computer programmer who is coding a machine that is not intelligent.

CC: How does a peanut butter and jelly sandwich relate to coding a computer?

MDB: The kids learned they have to go through the process step-by-step and pay close attention to detail. One of the scientists stood up and she had the peanut butter, jelly and bread as well as a jar of marshmallow creme. We were going to make a real mess out of this! She told them to give her directions. The students said, “Put the peanut butter on the bread.” So she put the whole jar on the whole loaf of bread. I love this activity. I’ve seen it and you really get a fantastic feeling when you’re there. As you might expect, they had to learn how to instruct a person to open the jars, pick up the knife, put the knife in the jar, take a small portion—enough that would fit on a knife—and so on. Of course, another time, they said, “Put the marshmallow on the bread,” so she stuck her hand in the marshmallow and the kids all squealed because, ugh, how could you do that? It was so messy. (laughs)

CC: It sounds like this was a very eye-opening process!

MDB: They really learned how giving directions and being very attentive to detail is the job of a programmer.
Another experiment they did was to learn how to make a battery using a lemon, a few pieces of metal and copper wires. They had to calculate how many lemons it would take to run an air conditioner or car—of course it would take an awful lot. Then they had to put three pieces of metal into the lemon, hook the wire and attach it to a reader that would display how much electricity it was drawing. It was kind of scientific because depending on where you inserted the sticks to make the battery, you might have gotten a little more electricity than if you had stuck them in on each side. Also, if you squeezed the lemon, you could get more electricity out of it. So they learned a little bit about how a scientist has to look at things and try different things.

CC: Should we expect to see lemons as the next environmentally friendly fuel to power our cars? (laughs)

MDB: (laughs) It takes something like five million lemons to run a car. The kids were all giggling, because of course, that’s not practical. Then they talked about what the results might be if you used other things such as a different type of fruit. They were experimenting with different things, in hopes of being able to get a
different result.

CC: With grapefruit, maybe you’ll only need two million.

MDB: (laughs) They also did something called space utilization where they had to design a room. They had to take a classroom and redesign the space to make it a classroom as well as a recreation room. Someone else had to design a classroom with a shelter. If you had to stay in the room for any period of time, what would be some of the things you would need, and how would you design the room? For example, one of them wanted to put a bowling alley in the recreation room. How would you do that? Would you just do one lane? Would you build it underground? Would you have to build the classroom space above it? These were the kinds of questions they had to solve.

CC: Did you find projects that didn’t work well with this group of students?

MDB: Some of the experiments they did became a little frustrating because the scientists coming in didn’t have the benefit of our experience, and didn’t know they needed to be more descriptive. We did debrief everyday and if we do this again, we definitely have at least two plans for how we might do things differently. Overall, it was a very positive experience. Every child was engaged and learning. Some of them really have tremendous potential, so we’re hoping that this was something of an incentive to take math and science and possibly look at a technical career.

CC: Is this going to be an on-going program?

MDB: The likelihood of doing this again will depend on funding. The EXITE Camp is just for girls, but we have a pipeline issue for children with disabilities which includes both boys and girls. This has been an encouraging experience. We definitely know that we made a difference in those children’s lives. Even the teachers said they could learn from us. They said that when we came in, we assumed the students could learn, and they did. Some of them were better at this than others, some of them were older than others.

CC: Do you plan on moving this camp to IBM facilities in the future?

MDB: Yes and no. I thought that would be the easiest solution because all the EXITE Camps run on that model and are held at the IBM locations by the IBM employees there.
We will have to take other elements of accessibility into account. To set up equipment for students who are blind or low-vision in an IBM location would have been a challenge because we might not have all the hardware available, such as Braille keyboards, screen readers already in place, etc. For this particular group, I think it is better to hold it at a school if they have the equipment. For other disabilities, it would vary and may be just as easy to hold it at an IBM site. For example, for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, all we would need to do is provide interpreters and make sure any videos that we show are closed-captioned. I think you have to decide based on your ordinance where the best place to hold the camp would be.

CC: Where do the students go from here?

MDB: It’s been a tremendous success. The follow-up to this would be the same as the EXITE Camp. We will identify IBM employees to act as mentors to the students during the school year. There will be ongoing interaction and encouragement.


For more information, please visit:
www.ibm.com
www.mentorplace.org
www.pacer.org


 

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