SIGGRAPH 99 Electronic Schoolhouse, Los Angeles, August 1999

Computer Camp -- For Girls Only!

Rebecca Mercuri

University of Pennsylvania
School of Engineering and Applied Science
P.O. Box 1166
Philadelphia, PA 19105


A Web-based computer camp "For Girls Only" (7th - 10th grade) will be offered this July at Mercer County Community College. The campers will learn HTML and JavaScript programming in order to understand basic computer concepts, while permitting individual creative exploration and development of Web pages. The female orientation is intended to assist in thwarting the image of computer and math-related activities as male dominions. 2D and 3D graphic design, as well as interactivity and human-interface concepts, will be emphasized. Programming topics will include: language syntax, functions, block structure, sequential and iterative statement sequences, and variables. Computer fundamentals (such as word processing, and basic understanding of hardware components) will be overviewed. Students will be assigned female mentors who will communicate with them via email and chat rooms during the camp week. The goal of the camp is to have each girl create a personal Home Page. These will be available for use and examination in the Classroom and Playground portions of the SIGGRAPH Electronic Schoolhouse.


Computer camps have been traditionally viewed as a haven for sallow-faced, antisocial, male teenagers who prefer to bask in the glow of a terminal rather than in the summer's sun. Often this male orientation is enhanced by promotional materials which emphasize activities like "hacking" and "Dungeons and Dragons" in addition to traditional programming. Although some of the camps are better than others in attracting females, it is a matter of serious concern that they may be among the factors contributing to the early perception of computer programming as an inappropriate career choice for females. Even worse may be the adverse impact that the reduction in hands-on recreational computer time has on the ability of females to compete in higher-level programming courses as they proceed through the curriculum. These assertions find support in studies indicating that although males and females elect high school computer courses in equal numbers, only a third of the bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Computer Engineering are issued to women. This disparity begins as early the freshman year, when about half of the qualified males choose scientific majors, with only a sixth of the qualified females making similar selections.[1]

In an effort to reverse this trend, a number of organizations have attempted early intervention programs. One of the more notable of these is the Math Options™ program, now in its ninth year at Penn State. This project is targeted at 7th grade girls, who are brought to college campuses to attend a day of activities, panel sessions and workshops led by women who have chosen math-related careers. There, the girls are given an opportunity to communicate one-on-one with the women about their professions and lives. Follow-up sessions and mentoring relationships are also provided. This project has met with tremendous positive approval, and serves many hundreds of girls each year.[2]

Having been involved with the Math Options program since its inception, I wanted to extend this concept within the computer camp scenario, and was afforded an opportunity to do this at Mercer County Community College (MCCC). MCCC is a suburban campus in central New Jersey, serving a diverse multicultural and broad economic student population. Among the many non-credit offerings is a group of summer courses called "Camp College" for Junior High and High School students. For a number of years, MCCC has offered various week-long computer camps entitled "Computer Hackers Workshop" which emphasize programming in the Pascal and C languages, with the project goal being the development of a computer game. Interestingly, to the best of the program directors' recollections, not a single female had ever applied for admission to any computer camp session. Clearly these demographics indicated that something was amiss.

The first step, therefore, was to develop a theme which might better attract the large untapped market of young female computer users that we knew were present in Mercer County. The Internet and World Wide Web seemed to promise a viable educational scenario, since its multimedia presentations, timeliness and easy accessibility equally attracts both girls and boys, yet its verbal orientation, particularly in chat sessions and via email, provides an especially strong female appeal. As well, the slight edge in verbal skills among girls of High School age possibly also makes them better "surfers" than boys. Penn State chose 7th grade as its target age group for the Math Options program because, at that point, the sex-based math/verbal differentiation is not yet as noticeable. Our camp would include students between 7th and 10th grades, since that was currently a successful age group for the male attendees. Since same-sex schooling has been shown to enhance participation and learning by females in male-dominated subject areas (such as mathematics and science), it was decided to offer the Web-based camp "For Girls Only." This labeling in the promotional brochure was hoped to further attract the attention of the females, and as well perhaps, their parents.

I had earlier co-developed a Web-based "Introduction to Computer Programming" course at Drexel University aimed at college freshmen.[3] This course used HTML and the JavaScript language to teach such concepts as language syntax, functions, block structure, sequential and iterative statement sequences, and variables. Computer fundamentals (such as word processing, and basic understanding of hardware components) were overviewed. Good human interface design and interactivity was emphasized, through the inclusion of tables, forms, and hyperlinks in their Web pages. Students were provided with software tools for 2D graphics, and they were encouraged to explore the use of original or customized imagery in their Web presentations. Some of the more advanced students surfed for animations and other code that they linked to or modified and included directly in their pages. The materials developed for this introductory course will be simplified somewhat and used for the programming training portions of the computer camp.

Prior work for the graphics portion of the computer camp will be based on my earlier collaborative effort involving the Franklin Institute Science Museum (Philadelphia, PA) and the Community School of Music and Arts (Mountain View, CA). Here, cartoonist Mike Mosher instructed students to develop images depicting their fears. These drawings were then enhanced with sound and 3D graphics in order to form a kiosk-style display. This successful exploration with evocative feelings should transfer well into the Web modality.[4]

The Girls Only Computer Camp will have as its goal that each participant develop her own original web page, from scratch (using a non-WYSIWYG editor), around a personally-chosen theme. If funding is available, campers will be given T-shirts with an attractive logo, in order to encourage team spirit. The campers would begin the week by learning how to use the browser and search engines in order to surf the web for specific topics (in a scavenger-hunt fashion). The girls will be directed to specifically female and kid-oriented sites and would also be permitted to explore for items of their own interest -- parental control software being used to insure some level of safety. The campers would be given access to chat rooms, email, and digital whiteboards, in order to facilitate cooperative work within the group. Each camper will be assigned an adult female mentor, similar to the Math Options scenario, who would greet them electronically and be available for email consultation throughout the week (and possibly also after the camp is over). Various hardware and software tools (including 2D and 3D graphics, digital still pictures, animated videos, and audio) will be explored for development of multimedia presentations. While the students begin to storyboard their concepts for their web pages, they will be provided with small programming tasks in HTML and JavaScript that will teach them the language basics.

At the end of the camp week (in mid-July) the Web pages will be mounted and the students and their mentors will have the opportunity to look at and interact with each others' work. The collected set of pages will be accessible in the Playground arena of the Electronic Schoolhouse at SIGGRAPH. Results of the program will be reviewed in a Classroom seminar session, including the course syllabus, examples of training materials, and student work. We intend to have some of the girls stationed on-line at the Mercer campus during various hours of the conference, so that they can directly communicate with the sigKIDS participants.

[1] Statistics from the Computing Research Association's Taulbee surveys.
[2] Math Options can be reached by contacting: Alice Sayles, Penn State Abington,
     1600 Woodland Road, Abington, PA 19001-3990.
[3] Report presented at ACM SIGCSE '98, see proceedings.
[4] For "Fears" information and photos see: