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"Geek Chic" Teen Girls Tear Through "Awesome Class"

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by Scott Somohano

PORTLAND, Ore. — A heat wave blazed outside, yet amid wires, circuit boards, and electronic gadgets in a top floor lab at Portland Community College’s Science and Technology building, 20 young women kept their cool, worked in pairs, and concentrated on hooking up a blinking light.

"The first light didn’t want to come on, the other one cracked, and this one started smoking," said Aniece Sheppard, 14, a freshman at Grant High School in Northeast Portland.

The exercise was part of "Geek Chic," a one-week program held in August for high school students, particularly girls and minorities who are under-represented in the high-tech engineering field. Each day the students did a different hands-on activity with mentoring from engineering students, teachers and high-tech professionals.

Sheppard’s lab partner, Janita Jones, 16, a junior at Benson Technical High School in Northeast Portland, said she wants to be an electrical engineer since taking an intro class two years ago. "I picked it up really easily. I was always talking about it," said Jones.

"We hope to encourage young women to consider careers in high-tech fields, and to begin taking the prerequisite courses necessary to enter electronics or computing," said Geek Chic co-coordinator Ginny Stonick, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore.

Cultivating problem-solving skills was another goal. "That’s what engineering is. That you can be creative and find a lot of different ways to solve the problem," said Molly Johnson, Geek Chic co-coordinator and a visiting physics professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore.

Several Geek Chic exercises were originally developed by Dr. Hilda Diamond at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., where Stonick and Johnson were colleagues.

As high-tech industries scramble for engineers and technicians, Stonick noted that 50 percent of the population — women — continue to be under-represented in those fields.

PCC Electronics Engineering lab manager Fran Pelinka, who helped all week, agreed. "We don’t get a lot of women through our Electronics Engineering program," she said. "It’s a shame because I think they’d do real well. It’d be great if sometime down the line we get some of these girls into the program."

Of course, fun is also important. "One thing we’ve encouraged them to do is rip things apart. You don’t want to break it, but if it’s already broken, it’s okay," said Stonick.

Yeah, but how about dropping them off the third-floor balcony? That’s the treatment one answering machine got after a couple of the screws holding it together proved stubborn.

"Awesome class," declared Bailey Studders, an eighth grader at Kellogg Middle School in Southeast Portland. "I like taking stuff apart and trying to put it back together. I was one of the people that took apart the answering machine."

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ED. Note: The sponsors of Geek Chic are Intel and the Intel Foundation, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, Portland Public Schools and Portland Community College.

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