Be an IT girl

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
A Scottish camp run by IBM is getting girls interested in science and technology, reports Frances Farrer

Each year global IT company IBM holds an annual event for 30 12 and 13-year-old girls from eight schools in the Inverclyde region of Scotland.

This week-long EXITE (EXploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) camp is part of an international scheme involving similar camps in Hampshire and at 30 other locations. All are free.

The main purpose is to encourage girls' interest in science, which tends to fade during the mid-teens. Inverclyde LEA adviser Margaret Robertson says pupils enjoy the camps and benefit from them. St Columba's high school in Gourock incorporates the camp and women in technology workshops into their skills for life and work programme, which is designed to enable students to make informed decisions for life and work.

At Greenock, the IBM campus and its 3,000-strong workforce so thoroughly occupy the Spango Valley as to almost make it a company town. There is even a dedicated railway station: the IBM Halt. More than 600 representatives work in the customer services sector, where 11 languages are spoken by the call centre staff, answering technical assistance questions for PC customers in 15 countries. Coverage is provided in 21 languages.

Visiting pupils are amazed by the scale. "I never knew there were so many jobs - or languages here," said one. "I thought it was just a big building that made computers," said another. They are fascinated by the quietness of the call centre, a huge room where, despite constant phoning, acoustics are designed so that you can practically hear a microchip fall.

Day one of the EXITE camp has the girls building robots from BBC kits and programming four simple actions. There are sessions on project development, software and creating web pages. The girls communicate with a camp in Dallas at the end of every Scottish day and the beginning of every Texan one.

A day-long practical session explores the work of the call centre through scripted role play in which the girls must determine the nature of a customer complaint. IBM communication officer Selina Boustred emphasises both the opportunity for the girls "to see the people who work in the industry", and the continuity provided by the MentorPlace service, which offers a weekly email mentoring session for the year following the course.

Each session lasts an hour and girls who have attended the camp and classmates who have not can ask questions of the tutors.

The volunteer tutors enjoy themselves. Carla Mazzaccherini demonstrates ViaVoice, a voice recognition word processing program. She commands it to start by saying, "Wake Up!".

Hearing that punctuation is verbally commanded, a pupil asks: "What if the words 'full stop' are part of what you want it to write in words?" This elicits the principle of the circumnavigating command.

There are levels of interest, says Mazzaccherini. "For some girls, ViaVoice is just another software package, but some of them can see the potential, for example, that disabled customers are enabled by it. In a small group, one girl may be interested in technical possibilities, the others just want to know if it's a means to a job."

She offered to teach because "when I was at school, there was little encouragement for girls doing technology".

"We want more girls to take technical qualifications," says Boustred, "but we don't expect all who come on these camps to go into technical careers."

She says the interactive facilities, which can't be replicated at school, are especially useful.

The scope of the week expands every year; this year's was the first to move off the site, for a visit to the Glasgow Science Centre. The last day closed with a link to the Dallas EXITE camp.

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