At Camp Invention in Norwalk, Connecticut, elementary school girls string beads marked with 0s and 1s. They’re getting an introduction to the binary system that underlies computer coding.
Then, wearing goggles, they pull apart computers with screwdrivers and wire cutters. Sometimes they make creative new inventions with the parts.
It’s a hands-on summer camp offered by Amazing Girls Science, a small nonprofit created by retired educator Cynthia Barnett to ignite girls’ interest in science. Through classes, clubs and conferences, it serves about 500 girls a year.
Barnett was formerly assistant principal of Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk. After retiring in 2003, she became concerned about girls being left behind in the rapidly growing high-tech sector.
“Women are not going into the sciences as much as men,” she said.
By 2024, 1.1 million jobs will be created in the computing-related fields, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Fewer than half those jobs will be filled by people educated in the United States, according to the center. And women only make up about one-fourth of the computing-related workforce, according to the center.
Reaching girls in middle school is key to getting more women in these jobs, according to research from Accenture and Girls Who Code.
Amazing Girls Science offers one-day science conferences for girls in fourth to eighth grade at Norwalk Community College.
“We hold two big conferences each year,” Barnett said. “We have over 100 girls” from across Fairfield County.
In October, elementary-school-age girls learned how to build circuits at the Electrical Circuits Conference. And in April 2018, girls will have a chance to dream up and build new inventions at the Invent and Innovate Conference.
The organization also runs after-school cryptography clubs at Norwalk High School, Carver Community Center and Side by Side Charter School in Norwalk.
Barnett, who is 74, was honored by AARP in October with its $50,000 Purpose Prize, recognizing her “encore career” as founder of Amazing Girls Science.
With the prize money, Barnett is planning a new program called Girls in Tech that includes long-term mentoring.
It will begin with a two-week summer program for 15 to 20 eighth- and ninth-grade girls.
“It’s going to be heavy on coding and cybersecurity,” she said. “Those are the jobs of the 21st century.” One way girls will develop coding skills will be through a fashion design computer application.
The girls will build laptop computers, which they will then take home and keep.
They will be followed for the next four years by a mentor hired by the program. “We will monitor grades and see where they need help,” she said. The mentor will also be in touch with the parents,
The goal is to “help them build success in high school,” she said.
Barnett initially used her own money to offer science activities to kids outside school. Then she created a nonprofit and solicited funding from family and friends. Her next step was to apply to local organizations for funding. The nonprofit currently has revenue of about $50,000 and is still funded locally.
Donors include individuals as well as the Fairfield County Community Foundation Fund for Women and Girls, Girl Scouts, Rotary International, the Petit Foundation and Xerox Corp., which is headquartered in Norwalk.