For two 11-year-old girls, computer camp is something to byte into

The face of Garfield the cat, a maze of pink dots with green eyes that wink, takes over the computer screen. Erika Weatherwax and Jenee Hauman, both 11, beam as proudly as any artists. They, after all, wrote the program that put the cat's face on the screen.

The two fledgling programmers are part of a group of about 65 youngsters, aged 11 to 16, who are attending a week-long computer camp at Lake Forest College. Some come as complete beginners. Others come to sharpen programming skills.

Like most computer camps, this one has trouble attracting as many girls (they account for only one-fourth of the total) as boys. And it's not for lack of trying.

''We've made a conscious effort to enroll more girls,'' explains Ralph Shively, chairman of the college's math and computer studies department. ''It's a little difficult for legal reasons to say or advertise that we want more girls , but when the enrollment gets to about 50, we close it for boys, hoping more girls will apply.''

''There's obviously no difference in the ability of boys and girls to work with computers,'' observes camp director Lowell Carmony, who notes that computer majors at the college break down into a 50-50 ratio. ''I just think parents are more reluctant to send daughters than sons to a coed camp.''

The work here is intensive - 10 hours at classroom computer terminals each day. But about one-third of the time is unstructured. This allows the children, who work two to a computer, to do anything from continued programming to playing video games.

Garfield, for instance, took two days of free time to produce. Erika and Jenee have access to computers at home and say they can't remember a time when they ever approached a computer with any reluctance.

From the start, Erika says, ''I really liked them.'' And Jenee thought they were ''really neat.'' Both say they and most other girls they know would generally rather write programs for a computer and watch it follow them than play games. But ''it depends on what games,'' Jenee says, shifting to one of the twosome's favorites: Bug Attack. The object? ''You try to shoot the bugs before they shoot you,'' says Erika.

In another classroom of more advanced students at the camp, friends Meredith Kruse and Susan McComb, who will be high school freshmen in the fall and are here for their second summer, say they would like to head for computer careers.

''I think what would be really fun would be to work for a computer game company and design games,'' says Meredith. Her first computer encounter, she recalls, was with a video game. She wanted to know how it worked and soon began writing game programs herself.

Meredith and Susan say they were the only two girls who signed up to use the school computer lab during study hall hours last year.

''It was mostly boys,'' says Susan. ''I don't know that many girls as enthusiastic about computers as we are. Most of our friends like video games, but they don't like computers.''

''A lot of girls think it's too hard - that they can't do it - but it really isn't,'' adds Meredith.

Roseanne Roscoe, the teacher of this advanced computer camp class, says she thinks that if girls are wary of computers at all it is because of the masculine slant of video games, which introduce most youngsters to the world of computers.

''I think it's fear,'' she says. ''Little girls don't play with trucks and rockets and laser beams. There aren't any feminine games - they're always little-boy games. One reason Pac-Man appeals to both sexes is that it's a maze game rather than a rocket or war game. Girls tend to like maze games much better.'' But she adds that girls also have a certain edge in learning computer programming: ''They're more willing to try things and take a chance - they're not afraid to be wrong.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.