In small groups, the girls pass around the palm-sized metallic brain, pinching it between thumb and forefinger.

The third- and fourth-graders ask about capacitors, network jacks, and motherboards. These girls banter in technology terms and freely speculate about what the different computer parts do.

The tour guide for their hardware journey, like all the other adult leaders in the computer lab, is a woman, a “TechnoSister” in the parlance of the carefully designed, all-volunteer, after-school mentorship program.

Each Thursday afternoon, just the girls gather in the second-floor computer lab at Fairmount Elementary School in Everett, Wash., where the mysteries of technology are unmasked.

It is a time when 22 girls are not only allowed, but are encouraged, to explore the innards of the computer, when they can dabble in web page design and play for the sake of play.

The all-girl cyber-time is Mahnaz Javid’s vision based on years of observation, first in her two sons’ classrooms and later as research for her doctorate.

Javid, an Edmonds, Wash., resident, sees an unreserved enthusiasm among the girls.

“There is absolutely no fear, no hesitation, no uncertainty when the girls are on the computer,” she said.

That’s a marked contrast to what she once observed. As a mother in the classroom, she witnessed “a huge gender gap” in technological competency and confidence among boys and girls.

That image stuck with her as she pursued her doctoratoral studies in educational leadership with a focus on educational technology at Seattle University. Her research has been published in three magazine articles on educational technology and as part of a book on cyber-education.

Javid is convinced the technology gender gap can be plugged. The Fairmount classroom is her laboratory for a three-year study as she tries to determine what engages girls in computer technology. The project also include workshops for parents and teachers and a software learning library for the students.

“… After I finished my dissertation, I asked myself, what can I do?” Javid said. “I didn’t want to just be an academic.”

Today, she is trying to remove barriers for young girls interested in technology.

The research-based program allows girls to learn technology without boys around and from female role models who work in the computer industry. It offers an environment where there is no competition for time or attention and where the girls have a license to be creative, both important instructional strategies, Javid said.

The TechnoSisters program, a project supported by the nonprofit Mona Foundation, tries to reach the girls early in life, before they form attitudes about their own technological competency. In a sense, it is an early intervention.

Javid has recruited an accomplished team of professional volunteers: a programmer, a graphic artist, a hardware whiz, and an independent technology investor. Two mothers with children in the program also help, keeping the adult-to-student ratio low.

Patrice Molinarolo, group program manager for Tidemark Computer Systems in Seattle and former president of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Association of Women in Computing, volunteers at the Mukilteo School District campus on Beverly Park Road. As a lifetime Girl Scout, she sees value in letting girls learn from women and other girls.

“Technology is so important,” she said. “I can’t allow these girls to be without it.”

Patrece Banks, a successful Bellevue-based technology investor, recently returned from a national computer technology show in Las Vegas. She was struck by how few women attended the show and the oftentimes nominal role of those who did participate.

“I can see how girls get discouraged,” she said.

All the mentors believe that the girls have the interest and capability to master technology. They see the progress each Thursday.

Javid was surprised at how much the girls enjoyed cannibalizing the hardware of four broken computers last year. With guidance, they still get to take the TechnoSisters’ working computers apart. Only now the computers must be re-assembled and turned on.

Rhya Milici, a third-grader in the district’s gifted program at Fairmount, finds the inside of the computer fascinating. So does her sister, McKenna, a fifth-grader from Endeavour Elementary School, who joins Rhya and their mother at Fairmount each Thursday.

“I have loved it that it’s all girls, because boys seem to be running everything,” McKenna said.

“I loved the fact that we would see these girls with screwdrivers,” said Kelly Milici, the girls’ mother.

Cathy Hoffman, principal at Fairmount, said she knew Javid from the days when her sons attended the school and was confident that she would provide a strong, well-researched program.

Hoffman’s only concern was with gender equity. She was told boys could sign up at the beginning of the school year after it was explained to the boys’ parents that it was part of a research project on girls and technology.

Today, there are 22 girls in the program.

Ultimately, Javid believes, the nurturing environment and different instructional strategies will even the playing field in the future.

The approach intrigues Jim Bassett, a calculus and technology teacher at Arlington High School, which was one of the first high schools in the world to offer a Microsoft NT training class on the company’s leading network operating system.

Bassett, who now teaches a Windows 2000 server course, has long been concerned by how male-dominated the courses are and often wonders what the enrollment would be like if the class was offered at an all-girls private school.

One of Bassett’s female students approached him early in the school year, concerned by the fact that the class was made up of more than 80 percent boys.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this,” she told Bassett.

“No,” Bassett responded, “that’s the reason you should be.”

Javid sees the TechnoSisters program as planting seeds. Three years from now, she hopes some of today’s students will be mentors for other young girls.

Everett School District #2

Mona Foundation