This is a bit longer than your average blog post, so bear with me....

Last week, I participated in the Microsoft DigiGirlz technology camp at Stony Brook University. The event hosted over 120 teen girls from all over Long Island and NYC for three days of hands-on technology. I actually sort of roped myself into it; a call went out for volunteers a month ago, and I replied that I could help if needed. A couple of days later, I was signed up to teach eight courses! The whole thing was only made possible by the incredible work of Laurie Carey from Microsoft, and a bunch of hard-working volunteers from Microsoft, CA, and other companies around the Island.

We started at 7:30 AM on Tuesday, registering the girls as they got off the buses or were dropped off at the Wang Center. Things got a bit hairy, since the reg lists were sorted by phone number instead of name. (Oops.) It took a little fiddling, but we were able to get everything sorted out.

I took on three classes on Day One: Microsoft Office, Popfly, and Critical Thinking. About 40 kids were led as a group into my classroom for the first session. This was actually quite handy, because when I’ve presented in the past, I’ve had to wait around for stragglers 10 minutes after the session was scheduled to start.

I asked how many girls had used Microsoft Office before, and almost everyone’s hand went up. However, almost none of them had touched Office 2007. The goal of the camp was to empower the girls and show them what the business world is like, so we used a real-world example in the training: business cards. We fired up Publisher and I led everyone through the process of making their own cards, choosing images and color and anything else they wanted to put on it. It’s amazing how everyone seemed to have a MySpace page with a million pix on it already. I offered to take photos of anyone who wanted them on their cards, but only one kid took me up on it.

After designing their cards, some assistants gathered them up and took them to be printed for a networking event. Unfortunately, the color printer couldn’t handle the thick card stock, so the cards ended up being run in black and white. As the cards were being run, the girls were taking a self-defense course (which I wisely avoided), and I headed to my classroom to prepare for Popfly.

Popfly is a new Microsoft program/Web service that lets you design Web component mashups visually, without writing any code. It’s pretty cool – I’ve used it once or twice. It’s also in closed alpha, which posed a problem. I didn’t have accounts for everyone to use, and time was ticking down fast. With 15 minutes to go until a flood of kids came in, I was frantically emailing around to get test accounts. I managed to get hold of a list of nine accounts to use. I looked calm and collected as everyone poured in.

Popfly was a bit more challenging than the other courses, because it was one of those “stay ten minutes ahead of the class” situations. I wanted to come up with something they would find interesting – many of these classes started out confusing, so an “aha” moment always does wonders. In this case, the “aha” was creating a program that let them enter their home address and see their house. It’s a complete no-brainer in Popfly: you connect a User Input box, a GeoNames box, and a Virtual Earth box. You click a couple of settings and run it. Voila! A geosearch program. When the students did this and zoomed in on their homes, I started to hear them gasp things like “this is so cool!” One of the kids in the back said to the girl next to her, “I thought this would be stupid, but I’m glad my mom made me come!”

Then the questions started. You never know exactly where a group’s mind is headed, and the focus of the queries surprised me. A lot of girls started asking how software goes from alpha to beta to final release. I talked a lot about the process that Microsoft uses, determining feature completeness versus release readiness, and the various debugging cycles.

The next batch of questions came as we changed Virtual Earth to bird’s-eye views. The girls started to see details in their neighborhoods that had changed in the past year. Several of them asked me how often the photos were updated. I explained how services like Virtual Earth and Google Earth use satellite images, and how the bird’s eye shots are probably a couple of years old. Then we went back to more questions about alpha software.

We ended the classroom day with a session on critical debate. I split up the room and assigned the kids to develop a pro-con debate on whether mobile devices should be allowed in classrooms. Most of the kids wanted them allowed, which made it a perfect topic for them to develop the con argument. We led them through how to research a debate point online – again, the skills they would need in the real world.

On Day 2, I introduced my group to Windows Vista. There was an interesting divide with the students. They had almost all used Microsoft Office, and some of them had used Office 2007—but almost none of them had used Vista. It was a simple demo, involving searching and using the Sidebar. I wanted to show them 3D flipping, but the machines we got didn’t have Aero abilities.

After that, we did the second day of the debate class. Now that everyone had researched their topics, I had them group together and hammer out a single presentation on each side.

Day 3 started with a surprise. We had an Xbox 360 and a Zune that we were going to raffle off to the kids. When the first staffers got to Stony Brook, the locked storage room was open, and the prizes had gone missing. Yup, some dirtbag had actually stolen the prizes. I had to spend my lunch running over to Best Buy at lunch and buying new ones.

I taught three classes on Thursday. I started with a unit on HTML, explaining how every Web page was just a bunch of HTML code, and opening up a few to give examples. We looked at some basic tags, and made a simple page or two. Some of the girls figured out how to open up their favorite pages and paste the HTML into their own page. Since the course was designed to spark interest, that worked pretty well.

The second class of the day was a winner – we wheeled in a bunch of old desktop machines and opened them up. We identified all the parts inside and what they did, and installed memory. After the class, one of the girls told me that it was really easy to upgrade a PC, and why would she have a store do it anymore? I showed them where the clock battery was, the difference between RAM and drives, how the power supply works, and all the parts of the motherboard. The kids kept asking what various small transistors on the machine were.

The final class of the day was the debate wrapup. I have to say, the kids raised some interesting points. For instance, what’s the difference between passing notes between periods and txting a friend? If the former is allowed, why wouldn’t the latter be? We had everyone vote on everyone else’s presentations, and the winners got some extra raffle tickets.

The debates wrapped up early, and I had more prizes to give, so I started coming up with trivia questions for everyone. The first one was “How old am I?” It elicited answers from 19 to 62. I asked who our senators are, and who the governor was:

“Is it…George Pataki?”

“No, but good guess. Pataki left office last year.”

“Is it…Governor Pataki?”

Well, points for trying. I tossed them a trick question, too. “How many kilobytes are in a gigabyte?” It took about five minutes for anyone to figure out that it’s really 1024x1024.

We all marched back to the Wang Center for the final ceremonies. I was swarmed when the kids saw the Xbox behind me, but we regained order and got everyone into the auditorium. After a few minutes of warmup, we were treated to a multimedia presentation that some of the girls had created, and then gave out the replacement prizes.

The girls were pleasantly surprised by the presentations; most all of them said they learned a lot and wanted to come back. I was surprised by what they were able to create when given just a little pointer. I also found it interesting that so many of them were so taken with OneNote! It’s a sleeper product, like SharePoint; they are both going to get a lot more popular in the next year.

The next time something like this rolls into town, I strongly urge you to volunteer for something. You don’t have to teach – you can just help at registration, or herd kids from one place to the next. But any involvement makes a big difference for everyone.   - J.T.