Cover Story

When adolescent boys and girls are asked to design a machine, boys typically will draw a vehicle--something fast with twin valves and piston turbojets. Girls, on the other hand, will design something practical, like the "Feed-and-Chore Doer," a contraption created by one girl that converts into an umbrella, a shovel and a rake, depending on the weather and the owner's needs.

The reason, said speakers at the Presidential Miniconvention on Women in Science and Technology at APA's 2000 Annual Convention in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4­8, is males and females view technology and their relationship with it differently.

"Women talk about technology as a tool to do things with, men talk about it as a kind of weapon," said psychologist Cornelia Brunner, PhD, a researcher with the Education Development Center's Center for Children and Technology in New York City. "Women talk about using it to create, men talk about the power it gives them. Women ask technology for flexibility, men ask it for speed. Women talk about using it to share ideas, men talk about the autonomy it grants them."

These differences are reinforced by the Internet, computer software and games, which are typically targeted at traditional male interests, such as action-related sports, games and computer programming. In comparison, few Internet or computer games or software programs target girls, except Barbie Fashion Design, a program that allows girls to create outfits, jewelry and hairstyles for Barbie.

"We are inadvertently steering girls away from computer technology," said psychologist Sandra Calvert, PhD, a professor at Georgetown University and director of the university's Children in Media Project. "Video games are children's gateways to computers. And ultimately this has ramifications for the kinds of careers people choose."

In fact, a 1999 Kaiser Foundation study found that boys, by a three-to-one ratio, play more video games than do girls, said Calvert.

In addition, she said, girls' computer use tends to focus on verbal activities such as sending e-mail or visiting chat rooms rather than activities that help them understand technology or build visual spatial skills.

The Center for Children and Technology is trying to close this gender gap by creating an interactive design space on the Internet for girls ages 8 to 12 called "Imagination Place!" which is aimed at showing girls they can shape and create technology rather than merely use it. The program, now in its third year, is funded by the National Science Foundation.

"Girls' technological imaginations need a little help," said Dorothy Bennett, the project's principal investigator. "Females tend to look right through technical objects at their functions in ways that aren't conducive to helping them think of themselves as potential designers and makers of technology."

To foster girls' mechanical imagination, the Center for Children and Technology created a virtual design center where girls can identify everyday problems such as how to organize things, find the perfect pair of jeans or remember to come home on time from the library or a friend's house and design and invent solutions. They can also engage in online puzzles and interactive activities that help them perceive everyday devices such as sewing machines and dishwashers as a culmination of a series of design choices, animate inventions they create by using Internet-based multimedia tools and chat with peers and female designers and engineers about their ideas.

"Some of the girls participating tell me that it's the first time anyone asked them about their ideas about technology," said Bennett.

The design center encourages participants to invent devices, then provide views of them from different angles--side, top and X-ray views. The X-ray view is the most important, said Bennett, because it allows them to speculate about how technology works.

Recent inventions include the Dirt-to-Food Machine, which transforms dirt into food; the House Masters 2000, which allows homeless people to repair burned-out buildings; a shuffle box, which organizes things; and Back-in-Time Machine, which allows the user to go back in time and live the life of a relative.

"The program gives girls a new way to look at design and invention and themselves as people who can build something," said Bennett.