Cyber Sisters Club: A Girl Friendly Environment
Wed, 27 Jan 1999 09:49:22 -0500

The Cyber Sisters Club:
Using the Internet to Bridge the Technology Gap with Inner City Girls
T.H.E. Journal December 1998

JUDY LICHTMAN, Reference Librarian
Penn State Lehigh Valley
Fogelsville, PA

Strains of the Winnie the Pooh theme song mix with the Backstreet Boys'
"We Got It Goin' On". In one corner, Yesenia waits impatiently for her
photo of Leonardo DiCaprio while the printer cranks out the 13th page of
the Titanic passenger list. At a table in the middle of the room, Tahisha
and Lashonya hunt and peck on their keyboards as they "talk" to each other
in the Headbone Zone Chat Room. Two girls at another table experiment with
different backgrounds on their Web pages. The weekly meeting of the Penn
State Lehigh Valley Cyber Sisters Club is in full swing.

For 15 girls from an inner city elementary school in Allentown,
Pennsylvania, the after school Cyber Sisters Club means a rare chance to
experience the technology that is changing the world around them. Like
many schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, their elementary school makes
do with an aging computer lab. With only three phone connections to the
office, the health room and the Counselor's office, the school cannot
provide even a modem connection to the Internet.

The plight of Mosser Elementary School is echoed across the nation. A
study in 1996 found that schools with the highest proportion of poor and
minority students were the least likely to have Internet access. In
schools like Mosser with over 70% of the students qualifying for school
lunch assistance, 53% had any Internet connection, and only 7% had
Internet access in an instructional classroom.[1]

Lack of Access

Students from these schools, many of whom live in Federal Housing
projects, also lack access to technological tools in their homes or
neighborhoods. Unlike their suburban counterparts, these children do not
spend hours of their free time surfing the Net or playing "Dr. Brain" on
the family room computer. Not only do economically disadvantaged youth
miss out on the educational enrichment provided by many computer
activities, they begin their employment search with an inadequate sum
of skills in a job market that highly values technology literacy. Add to
this the increasing importance of the Internet in political and social
discussions, and the disadvantage of the disconnected becomes a critical
problem for our society as a whole.

Not surprisingly, minority students, many of whom live in these
economically depressed areas, are woefully under-represented in all
computer related fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in
1996 only 7.2% of all computer scientists were African-American and 2.6%
were of Hispanic origin. Respondents in a recent survey of IS network
workers by Network World reported that minorities made up only 5% of their
network staffs.[2]

Poverty may be only one of the factors contributing to the lack of
technology experience among Hispanics. Dr. Anthony Wilhelm, Director of
Information Technology Research at The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute,
recently studied middle-class Hispanics in California and found that
"Spanish-speaking participants and recent immigrants emerge from a
background in which there is little or no direct experience with
computers...Lack of familiarity, exposure and direct experience with
computers among Hispanic parents manifests itself in feelings of anxiety,
apprehension and fear over the role computers are playing in the lives of
their children".[3]

The Gender Divide
The members of the Cyber Sisters Club, daughters of poor minority
families, experience another handicap in the world of technology: their
gender. A number of recent studies have confirmed the disparity between
girls and boys in their technology skills and attitudes. The low number of
women who take the Advanced Placement test for computer science, who
choose computer science as a field of study and who are employed in
technology related fields confirms that computer science is far and away
a male dominated world.

Analysts of the gender gap in technology cite societal, psychological and
marketing factors. The myth that girls can't excel in science and math
stubbornly endures despite many advances by women in these fields. Girls
look to their mothers for examples and too often see hesitant and
reluctant users of technology. One study polled 10th graders and found
that a much higher percentage of girls than boys had never talked with a
parent about science and technology issues.

When girls do sit down at a computer, they tend to wait for instructions
and blame themselves when something doesn't work. In contrast, boys often
approach technology with an aggressive, experimental attitude, clicking
their way to a solution of any problem online. The manual never makes it
out of the shrink wrap. The boys develop the confidence which results from
an intimate knowledge and mastery of technology.

The instant fascination of boys with video and computer games encouraged
software companies to market to them rather than to their more hesitant
sisters. From Duke Nukem to Leisure Suit Larry to Total Control Football,
the shelves of an Electronics Boutique store attest to a male dominated
computer culture. Only recently have women, recognizing the role of these
games in stimulating an interest in computers, founded software companies
like Girl Tech and Purple Moon devoted to the design of games for girls.

Cyber Sisters Club
The Penn State Cyber Sisters Club was created to bridge the gap between
the technologically advantaged and disadvantaged, in this case minority
girls from a low income, inner city school. The Club is part of the Youth
Enrichment Partnership program, begun in 1990, which provides educational
enrichment activities after school and during the summer with a dual
emphasis on writing and technology. As part of a Y.E.P. program serving
children from a local Federal housing project, the Cyber Sisters Club
received funding for its first session this year from the Allentown
Housing Authority.

Penn State Lehigh Valley seemed uniquely positioned to launch a program to
encourage girls to take part in the technological revolution. At a time
when women are the minority in computer related fields, virtually all
technology related positions at the campus, including the computer science
faculty, network coordinator, instructional design specialist, campus
Webmaster, and reference librarian are held by women. These women were
invited to visit the Club during meetings to serve as role models, and
some volunteered their time to work one-on-one with the girls.

The first group of Cyber Sisters met on seven Thursdays in the spring of
1998. Fifteen girls from Mosser Elementary School's fifth grade classes
were selected by their teachers and counselor to participate in the
program. A majority of the students were Hispanic, many from families who
had recently come to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico. The girls were bused
to and from the Penn State campus, located about 30 minutes from their
school, by the University. Club activities focused on using the Internet
and creating personal Web pages. As Sherry Turkle noted in her EDUCOM '97
address, the Internet, more than any other advance in computing, has the
potential to bring girls and women into the culture of technology due to
its social and creative aspects such as e-mail, chat rooms and Web page

A "Girl Friendly" Environment
The activities and surroundings chosen for the Club reflect the results of
educational research focusing on girls and their preferences in a learning
environment. In Does Jane Compute, Roberta Furger documents techniques
that have been used successfully to draw girls into computer
activities.[4] These include assigning collaborative projects that
emphasize cooperation rather than competition, acknowledging girls'
expertise as they gain computer skills, using them as peer assistants,
making computer activities relevant to girls, and creating a more
nurturing "girls only" sanctuary where girls will not be intimidated by
more computer-literate boys.

One problem observed during group work on a computer is a tendency for the
most computer-savvy student in a group to take control of the mouse so
that other students finish the project without gaining new skills and
confidence. To avoid this pitfall but still maintain a collaborative
environment, each Cyber Sister worked on her own computer while seated
with other girls at a circular table. In this way the girls were able to
share their online experiences as they worked and to help each other with
problems. This arrangement also provided opportunities to publicly
recognize the girls by asking them to help other students with something
they had mastered or discovered on the Internet.

Penn State Lehigh Valley's wireless "CoLab", completed two weeks before
the first Club meeting, provided the perfect setting for this type of
cooperative learning. In the CoLab, modular, mobile tables can be
configured to encourage collaborative learning in various size groups. The
room during the first sessions of the Cyber Sisters Club resembled an
"intimate cafe," with six small round tables and dimmed lighting. One
drawback to this design was a lack of interaction among girls from
different tables. Sites and skills discovered by one group weren't shared
with the others. Also some girls were disappointed that they couldn't sit
with friends at another table. By rearranging the table segments into one
large oval, we changed the segregated groups into one large community.
Although this added somewhat to the noise level in the room, it gave
everyone a sense of belonging and also allowed new discoveries to spread
around the table. Girls who wanted a quiet space to write or to consult
with staff on an element of Web page design could move to one of three
smaller tables in the back of the room.



Judy Lichtman serves as Reference Librarian and coordinates the Youth Enrichment Partnership program at Penn State Lehigh Valley in Fogelsville, Penn. She developed and taught the Cyber Sisters program. Other Internet sites she maintains include "Teens in Trouble: A Survival Page for Parents," the "R.M.S. Titanic Reading Room" and the "Virtual Library Research Assistant."

For more information, E-mail:

___________________________________________________________ Hoai-An Truong (first name pronounced "Why-Ann") Program Director 510/451-7379 ext. 226 Computers In Our Future - Computers & Telecom Skills Ctr (CIOF-CTSC) for low-income youth, women & minorities! at Women's Economic Agenda Project, Oakland

Forwarded from the WEAP listserv

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