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Miami camp gets girls excited about computer science careers

Tana Weingartner

NPR is reporting Friday on a new study suggesting the gap between men and women in technology fields could be related the a lack of high school girls taking physics classes or living in communities that don't have a lot of females in tech-related jobs.

A summer camp at Miami University is trying to empower high school girls and encourage them specifically to pursue computer sciences. It's called Girls on the Go.

High school seniors and juniors crowd around computer screens. They're hard at work analyzing computer code to create smartphone apps for the Cincinnati Zoo.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
While half the team writes code, the other half designs the app's graphics.

The campers started the week with a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo to brainstorm possible apps for zoo visitors. One team's design offers a Siri-like feature that would allow users to ask questions about all the different animals.

Team member Taryn Lyons attends a small high school in Baltimore, OH. It doesn't offer computer classes so she open-enrolls at a bigger school nearby to take them there. While she says there are a good number of girls in those classes, she likes Miami's all-girl camp.

"It really is really awesome to be surrounded by so many girls that into the same stuff you're into," says Lyons. "I've just been surrounded by so many guys my entire life that are into this stuff and it's really cool to see a bunch girls that are into it too."

Associate Professor Janet Burge helps teach the camp. She remembers having record numbers of women in her computer classes when she was a college student in the 80's.

"It was kind of a shock when I went back to graduate school and walked into an undergraduate classroom," she remembers. "(I) looked around and said, 'Wow! Where are all the women?' So, we're trying to get them exposed to computing using it through mobile apps because it's something that's kind of new and kind of fun and relatable because most of them have smartphones of some sort. The idea of being able to actually write programs they could run on their phones is pretty of cool."

Current Miami students also work with campers. Senior Victoria McIe is studying computer science. She says there are only about six females in her entire major. She can't imagine not working with the Girls on the Go program.

"Personally," she says, "I've heard a lot of high school girls say, 'I can't do that. It's way too hard.' And I don't want anyone to think that. I want girls to get involved. I want them to know that they can do it."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
One team gathers around a Kindle Fire while working on their app design.

The camp is only a week long so the apps aren't fully functional, but campers do get to take the code with them.

Taryn Lyons says she's hoping the experience will help her as she begins the college search this fall.

"I want to go into computer science," she says.

That's music to Janet Burge's ears. And those of the other instructors. The camp is a joint partnership between Miami, the University of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky University.

UC Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computing Systems Karen Davis says the camp offers girls strong female role models.

"We had 3 female professors from 3 universities, 4 undergraduates from different computing-related majors as counselors, and 9 professional mentors with careers ranging from cybersecurity to banking to law," says Davis.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.