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Anna G. Larson, Published June 12 2013

High-tech fun: Camp introduces girls to STEM careers

FARGO - The pyramid left their fingers sticky, but a group of teenage girls learned that triangles are stronger than squares.

The six girls, who call their group “The Treble Makers” from the movie “Pitch Perfect,” fashioned a pyramid out of dime-size marshmallows and tiny toothpicks on Tuesday at Microsoft’s DigiGirlz High Tech Camp, an annual camp hosted at 60 Microsoft campuses worldwide.

Once constructed, the pyramid was tested for its strength. Through the exercise, the girls learned the basic concept of software testing.

The marshmallow-toothpick building activity was one of a handful of “mini sessions” girls participate in at the camp that attracts 100 middle and high school-age girls. The girls spend three days learning about technology and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The goal of the camp, which concludes today, is to dispel gender stereotypes and introduce girls to high-tech, says Kelly Obach, who headed up DigiGirlz this year and manages Microsoft’s Executive Briefing Center.

Obach studied computer science in college and recalls being one of 30 women in a program of 700. She says her high school education didn’t prepare her for a career in the STEM fields, so she wants to expose teen girls to their STEM career options early.

“It was eye opening,” Obach says. “Getting women in technology is a big driver for me.”

Women hold 24 percent of STEM jobs in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 25 percent of Microsoft’s STEM jobs are held by females, Obach says.

Mali LeMier, 14, is attending DigiGirlz for the first time. She insisted her group use triangles in the marshmallow activity, calling herself a “science geek.” LeMier’s father is a technical account manager at Microsoft, and she says her family has exposed her to science throughout her life.

“Growing up, my brother always had ‘MythBusters’ on TV, so we’d randomly spout science facts,” she says.

LeMier, of West Fargo, hopes to combine her love of science and art in a career someday, saying that a job involving video games and animation tops her list of desirable careers.

“I don’t think a lot of girls my age are interested in sciences, but a lot of them should be,” she says.

Even the least science-y girl could learn something new through the hands-on activities and presentations, says LuAnn Baker, a technical account manager at Microsoft who lead the Treble Makers group.

“What I think is so amazing is that anyone can learn it,” she says, noting that engineering, critical thinking and creativity come together under the umbrella of technology.

While LeMier and the Treble Makers worked on their marshmallow pyramid, Microsoft’s Abdullah Ali offered suggestions and asked questions, mimicking the interaction between a customer and a developer. He encouraged the girls to “think globally” and consider how the project will impact them and the customer. Ali stressed the importance of working out all the kinks so that customers have the best experience.

“It’s not like we’re teaching – they’re learning,” he says.

Once the Treble Makers’ pyramid was complete, a phone case was placed on it to test its strength. The marshmallow-toothpick structure sunk a little, so the girls were encouraged to reinforce it. A final strength test slowly leveled the pyramid structure, but the Treble Makers are certain it’s because the phone case was for a “beastly” Nokia.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525