When geek becomes chic

This is a personal account of the experiences of Colleen Stieler with girls and Information Technology. Colleen is a female secondary teacher at Nyanda State High School, located in a low socio-economic area of Brisbane’s south.

About the author

Colleen Stieler is an Information Technology teacher at Nyanda State High School, Brisbane. Recently, she received the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) Outstanding Technology-Using Education of the Year for 2001. She was flown to the National Educational Computing Conference in Chicago, in June this year to receive this award.

Colleen also received the Queensland Society for Technology in Education’s (QSITE) Teacher of the Year Award for 2000. Colleen started teaching in 1995 at Nambour Christian College. She taught there for three years before starting at Nyanda in 1998. Colleen has been involved extensively in curriculum development at her own school, professional development of teachers in the Brisbane area and many extra-curricular activities for students.

When geek becomes chic

This is a personal account of my experiences with girls and Information Technology. I am a female secondary teacher at Nyanda State High School, located in a low socio-economic area of Brisbane’s south.

This personal account will begin by describing how Nyanda’s Girls in Technology Group, Techno G., began. It will also include quotes from staff and students who have been involved in the journey. This account will then describe the structure and aims of Techno G. and give examples of activities and projects that Techno G. members have been involved in. Anecdotal evidence will also be given about the effects of student involvement with Techno G.

The beginnings
About two years ago, I sat at a table with my Head of Department. We had been asked to develop a junior computing curriculum. We wanted our curriculum to attract both boys and girls, to be exciting and to teach students skills relevant to today’s world. The course that we developed had three strands: a ‘web development’ strand, a ‘developing multi-media for the web’ strand, and a ‘programming’ strand.

Planning finished and confident that these courses were winners and that the students would be excited to participate, we presented them to the students as subject selection offerings. The result was that the subjects were popular; but they were far more popular with boys than girls.

There were several girls in each class but by far, the majority of students were male. I noticed that most of the girls in the classes lacked confidence in their use of technology.

In order to cater for difference in ability levels, the teachers developed self-paced, multimedia learning materials. This model of learning allowed the teacher to help each student “where they are at” and facilitated a peer-tutoring model. It was noted that it was rare that girls would act as tutors. They were usually on the receiving end of tuition from their male counterparts. I found it discouraging to see that many of the girls simply wanted the boys to do the thinking for them.

At Nyanda, students have the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular computing competitions and projects. For some reason in most of these competitions, very few, if any, girls were involved.

I had hoped that having a female role model in myself would encourage more girls into the field. It did help; but it was not enough.

As I sought to identify the reason why girls were reluctant to do our Information Technology subjects, I developed a number of conclusions. I discovered that girls (and perhaps all students) do not have much of a concept as to what type of jobs exist in the workplace for Information Technology specialists. Many girls think that people who work in the Information Technology industry have ‘geek’ jobs. They do not understand that while there are still ‘geek’ jobs available, increasingly companies want more than computer ‘geeks’. Companies are looking for employees with high technical skills, strong verbal and written communication skills who can work within a team environment. Girls have so much to offer the Information and Communication Technologies field. As a community, we need to work on changing the public face of the ICT industry.

I like Techno G. because we get taught skills that will help us through our life and it’s just for girls so there’s no guys to tell us how to do things right.
~ Amy

In the last decade, so many new roles have developed within the Information Technology industry. Girls can excel and enjoy web design, team management and multimedia development.

Techno G.
At the end of 2000, I decided that I wanted to try to do something about the gender imbalance in my Information Technology classroom. I thought about starting an extra-curricular computer group just for girls. During my September school holidays, I began to dream of the exciting projects and activities the students could get involved in and the new skills that they could learn.

I decided that the main aims of the group should be to make using technology fun, to increase the confidence in the use of Information Technology of the girls in the group, to increase the skill set of the girls involved and to show the girls that Information Technology was an exciting possibility for them in the workforce.

I decided that while there would be some structured learning, I mainly wanted to adopt a project based, ‘just-in-time’ learning model. To increase the girls’ sense of purpose and importance, many of the projects that we would work on would allow us to use technology to assist others.

It was also important that the girls felt cared for and safe to share opinions within the group. I decided to provide afternoon tea at each meeting to encourage the social element and teamwork among the girls.

During the holidays, I began to think about which girls should join the group. For the first term, I wanted to hand-pick the girls who would be involved. Once the group had experienced success, I would open it up to volunteers. I also spoke to other teachers for recommendations, and I targeted girls with varying levels of computer literacy and confidence. I chose the foundation members of the group more on personality and responsibility rather than on computer skills. I also endeavoured to find girls from all grades.

At the start of Term 4, girls were approached about joining the all-girls computer club on Tuesday afternoons from 3pm to 5pm. Permission forms were sent home and returned by eager students. At our first meeting, I got the girls to fill in a questionnaire about their interests. One of the questions asked, “What is your favourite pizza?”. After a quick demonstration on how to use our school’s digital camera, I sent the girls out into the school grounds to do a photo scavenger hunt. This was a great starter activity as it “broke the ice” between the girls. It was also a heap of fun!

While the girls were away at their scavenger hunt, I collated the ‘favourite pizza’ information and ordered some delivery pizzas, which arrived just as the girls came back from their scavenger hunt. It was a great surprise for the launch of our girls’ in technology group.

We met as Nyanda’s Girls in Technology Group for several weeks before the girls could agree on a name. The end decision was to name their group Techno G. which was short for “Techno Girls”.

Techno G. projects
A week or two after launching Techno G. I received an email about a Women in Technology Day that was being organised. This was to be the first (of many) Techno G. excursions. At the Women in Technology Day, the girls learnt about possible career paths that exist for girls in technology. The highlight of the day for the girls was having lunch at McDonalds’ and a panel discussion from a group of women who were currently studying Information Technology at a variety of institutions at a variety of levels (ie. Certificates through to Bachelor degrees). Each woman described the journey that led her to Information Technology, her dreams and aspirations for the future and the opportunities that exist for women in the Information Technology industry. Listening to the girls’ conversation on the way home made me realise how little the girls previously knew about careers in the Information Technology field.

Perhaps my favourite Techno G. project so far, has been Operation Bessie. The aim of Operation Bessie is to send picture books created by local students to children in developing countries. Operation Bessie is Nyanda’s part of an International project called Books without Boundaries. Techno G. organised Nyanda’s Operation Bessie projects for 2000 and 2001.

Twenty students from our local primary schools were invited to Nyanda for a Technology fun day. During the day, the students produced picture books, which were printed and then sent to children in developing countries by way of schools and refugee camps. All of the books that the students made were based on the adventures of a toy koala, named Bessie. The students worked in small groups to produce their own picture book. They used digital image manipulation skills, to superimpose Bessie into photos that formed the basis of Bessie’s adventures.

With the reward of treasure map pieces for work completed and an exciting treasure hunt at the end, the day guaranteed to be exciting for all participants and hectic for all organisers!

The Techno G. girls were involved in all aspects of organising the day. Invitations for the day were prepared, printed and sent to children from our local primary schools. The girls sent letters to local businesses asking them to donate stationery goods that could be sent to the children in developing countries. The girls developed story lines for the books that the primary students would make. They learnt how to digitally superimpose Bessie into photos so that they would be able to show the primary students how to do it. They also helped me develop online learning materials to explain to the primary students how to make their storybook. The photos that Bessie was superimposed into were obtained by emailing schools around the world with requests for assistance. We received hundreds of photographs via email. The girls were also responsible for making sure the day ran smoothly.

Packages were sent to a refugee camp for Palestinian children in Jordan, a school in Uganda and a mission school in Nigeria.

The primary students had a great day. The Techno G. girls also enjoyed themselves immensely. The organisation and running of the day was a huge task. The girls rose to the occasion and did a fabulous job! The website for this event can be viewed from our school website (http://www.nyandashs.qld.edu.au) in the projects section.

I like being in Techno G., because I learn things on computers and we get to work with a lot of people. At Techno G. we do all sorts of fun things like organise and run over 50s days and Grade 6 day. Experts come and work with us and show us how to use Technology. We also do a lot of other things.
~ Emma-Heidi

Some of the projects that Techno G. has embarked on have arisen from requests within our wider community. One of our feeder primary schools was preparing a display for the Director-General of Education about the very successful literacy program that they had developed. The principal asked if our students would be able to help with preparing some digital photos for her presentation. After some pointers on taking ‘good’ digital photos, the girls went out to the primary school to take photos of their literacy program in action. Projects like this broaden the girls’ horizons and give them a sense of purpose and importance. It was a great day.

During the Coopers Plains District’s Show Case Awards for Excellence, the girls were asked to prepare a simple website briefly outlining each entry. The girls had to take photos of the display prepared by each school and insert some information from each school’s show case application. The web site that the girls made can be viewed in the projects section of our school web site (http://www.nyandashs.edu.au).

This year, Techno G. took part in our school’s shopping centre display during Education Week. After learning how to use Microsoft Agent with PowerPoint, the girls made a terrific self-running presentation that could be used to describe to the public what Techno G. does. The Presentation made use of Microsoft Agent characters to narrate the presentation. The girls also got to attend the shopping centre display. They helped set the display up and also had the opportunity to talk to people at the shopping centre about Nyanda and their involvement in Techno G.

I think one of the keys to the success of Techno G. is making sure that we do activities with a human element. One day, I was standing in a small computer store when an elderly gentleman walked in and began to quiz the sales assistant about digital still and video cameras. The man’s daughter lived overseas and he wanted to send pictures to her via email. He thought that a digital camera would be ideal for this purpose but he did not know where to start looking. This got me thinking… he was probably not the only person in his age group faced with these decisions.

At the next Techno G. meeting, I asked the girls if they would like to run a digital photography afternoon aimed at retired people. They were all very keen to be involved. The girls set about designing and printing flyers, finding suitable addresses to send the flyers to and communicating with a local digital camera seller, Photo Continental, to see if they would be interested in speaking to the participants about makes and models of popular digital cameras. Then came the planning of the program for the day. It was decided that the afternoon would be divided into three segments. All participants would have the opportunity to use our school digital cameras in a photography scavenger hunt which would take place around our school grounds, they would hear information about digital cameras from a Photo Continental representative and finally they would all have the opportunity to view their scavenger hunt photos and then email them to a friend. Photo Continental provided great prizes for the winning group. The girls did a great job in organising the afternoon. The participants and the girls thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Although the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was postponed for 2001, the People’s Festival still went ahead. For one day, the girls had a display in the Education Queensland booth in the Children and Youth Friendly Pavilion. Fitting with Education Queensland’s theme of Education can take you anywhere, the Techno G. girls ran a free “funny photos” booth. Visitors to the booth chose the photo that they would like to be superimposed into. Photos that they could choose from included photos taken by Techno G. students on excursions to the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Brisbane city centre and some photos that I took on my trip to the USA. The participant would then pose to have his or her digital photo taken. Using computer software, the girls then superimposed the person into the photo of their choice. The digitally enhanced images were then printed and put into a special souvenir wallet for them to take home. The participants were able to watch the girls as they digitally manipulated the images. Over 100 people had their funny photo taken on the day. It was an exhausting but fabulous day!

Currently, the girls of Techno G. are working on creating a CD for our senior students. The CD will feature photos taken at the senior formal. The students have had to digitally enhance some of the photos to remove ‘red-eye’ from them. They have also had to categorise the photos into appropriate sections, design the interface for the CD and the CD cover. Students are learning the importance of having a variety of skills. For example, not only do they need digital image manipulation skills and other Information Technology related skills to complete this project but they also need organisational and communication, and design skills.

Techno G. members participated in Nyanda’s launch of some computer training for teachers from within the Coopers Plains district. The girls acted as tutors and helpers to the teachers who were participating in an E-Learning Activity.

Recently, Techno G. was the proud recipient of a $1,250 grant from BP. Techno G. is using this money to extend existing Information Technology projects and be involved in some new projects. It was very exciting for the girls and myself to have what we are doing recognised and rewarded.

Techno G. has a great many plans for the future. We are really just in the beginning stages. We are planning to get experts in different Information Technology fields so that the girls can learn new skills such as digital video editing. We are also planning to delve further into web design and find out more about the exciting careers that women have in the Information Technology field.

Techno G. has been such a valuable experience for myself and the girls involved. As with anything worthwhile, there have been some struggles and pitfalls along the way. The biggest for me is that I still feel that the group is too centred on me. I would like to be able to say that if I was not there the group would continue… but unfortunately, I do not know that this is the case. I think that there are two main reasons for this. The first is that I have never been able to master the concept of “do yourself out of a job”. Somehow I always seem to “do myself into more jobs”! The second is that there is such a shortage of female Information Technology teachers with a strong knowledge and/or interest in the Information Technology areas that the girls are learning about. I am hoping that groups like Techno G. will gradually bring about change in these circumstances.

Although Techno G. has only been running for just over a year, I have seen significant changes in the girls involved over this time. One of the biggest barriers to girls using Information Technology well is lack of confidence. While this is an ongoing battle, I have seen marked changes in the girls.

Here are some details of one such success story. I asked a girl who was struggling in my Computer Studies class to join Techno G. Three months of Techno G. and she was a changed girl. She approached me one day in class and said, “Miss, I’m having a problem with… (pause) Do you think if I tried…, it would work?”. I was over the moon! I told her to give it a go. Previously if this girl had difficulties she would just sit there, put her hand up and wait for me or another student to help her. I have seen similar increases in confidence in other students as a result of their involvement in Techno G.

Each of the girls in the Techno G. group gets the opportunity to use their diverse range of natural talents and abilities as well as learn new skills. The range of projects that the girls are involved in ensures that all personality types are catered for.

As mentioned earlier, Nyanda State High School is located in a low socio-economic area. I was very heartened to hear one of the girls telling me that her parents had said that if she continued to be involved in Techno G., they were going to upgrade her computer. This was their way of encouraging her interest. Techno G. is having a positive effect on the lives of these students.

Part of Techno G. is about teaching girls new Information Technology skills and increasing their confidence in using Information Technology. The project nature of Techno G. means that the girls learn so much more. They learn how to work in a group, how to organise and plan an event and how to help others learn new Information Technology skills. In the end, the people element of Techno G. is part of its success.

Techno G. rocks… Techno G. is a group that work together with one another and Technology to organise fundraising events, raise community skills concerning technology, learn more and more about technology and enjoy it at the same time. I like being in Techno G. because not only do we learn heaps and heaps of new skills that we can excel at, but the all-girl environment really makes it easy going and quite frankly, fun! At Techno G. we do all sorts of fun things like: digital camera scavenger hunts, Operation Bessie, over 50s days, organise fund-raising events, learn about Flash, Paint Shop Pro, Dreamweaver, MS Agent and other programs. I’d definitely recommend it, it really is great!!!
~ Kattie

Techno G. is one of the most rewarding projects that I have ever been involved in. Women have just as much to offer the Information Technology industry as men. Girls in technology groups like Techno G. do make a difference to the attitude of girls towards Technology.