“I was petrified I would fail, the girls would be bored, and I would lose one or two of them,” says Carol Woodhouse, an IT specialist program manager for IBM in Australia, recalling the time in 2005 she led her first EX.I.T.E. camp. Started in 1999, Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering (EX.I.T.E.) is a global program to introduce girls to engineering and computer science through highly dynamic and interactive sessions.
Carol volunteered to lead the first EX.I.T.E. camp in her area. She didn’t fail that first day or over the next eight years as more than 300 girls in the Brisbane-Gold Coast area participated in EX.I.T.E. camps that Carol led or organized. “Over the years I have learned to relax, rely on my organizational skills, and my forward planning,” she says.
While Carol’s professional skills helped the program succeed—along with the volunteers who gave their time to help—her personal commitment and passion won over more than a few girls to consider a career in technology. Kerri Wait, a graduate of Carol’s first camp in 2005 says, “I had never considered a career in IT before I attended the EX.I.T.E. camp, but I discovered how creative IT could be. Carol's work has inspired many students to aim high in science, math, IT and engineering.” In fact, Kerri is now a business transformation consultant for IBM, and says, “I know that if it wasn't for my EX.I.T.E. experience, I certainly wouldn't be here at IBM.”
Over the years, as a volunteer who has received numerous awards and grants, Carol has lived by the quote in her email signature, courtesy of Bruce Springsteen, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” In addition to Kerri Wait, another EX.I.T.E. grad, Nina Nicholls, also works for IBM as a software engineer. Several of the other 300 young women who benefited from Carol’s EX.I.T.E. camps have been sparked to pursue education in technology-related fields, too.
EX.I.T.E. globally and modify locally
In 2005, Carol was looking to become more active as a volunteer. “I was interested in recruiting more women into IT and IBM, and I wanted to do something fun as give back,” she says. “I was asked by the account exec in Brisbane if I would run an EX.I.T.E. camp and I loved it. I had so much fun and realized I could make a difference if I continued.”
While EX.I.T.E. is a global program, its execution is very local and, in Carol’s case, she was starting from the beginning with limited materials. “I remember feeling thrown in the deep end. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing, organizing and running everything.”
She took what documentation did exist for EX.I.T.E. and modified it to suit her vision for the camps. Then Carol, who describes herself as a “networker,” built on a relationship from a previous volunteer project with Griffith University in South East Queensland to develop ongoing support for EX.I.T.E. The university provides the facilities for EX.I.T.E. camps and easy access for those attending local high schools. The academic setting also gives the girls a glimpse into what awaits them if they pursue their education after high school.
The young women come from schools in the area. In the beginning Carol asked Education Queensland project manager for Smart Classrooms for help identifying schools. Today, she says, “We have some schools that attend every year, but the schools are and were selected because of the enthusiasm of the teaching staff.” The selected campers are nominated by their teachers. In addition to volunteers from the university, Carol relies on IBM volunteers—a combination of newly hired recent college graduates who can recall being students themselves and professional women who are enthusiastic about sharing their experiences in technology.
Camp is run over three days with three to four workshops a day. Each camp needs workshop presenters, a senior person to close the event, a role model speaker and the team captain—about 15 volunteers. “A lot of the women volunteers from IBM are recent grads, so presenting helps them grow in confidence and knowledge. I’m very, very proud of that,” Carol says.
Among other things, the campers learn about robotics programming, 3D graphics modeling, computer games, animation, open-source cloud, and a range of topics. As Carol says, “They all want hands-on activities—no lectures or presentations—fun activities.”
Off-the-shelf inspirational activities
In October 2012, after 12 successful EX.I.T.E. camps over 8 years and a thoroughly documented process on how to plan and lead a camp, Carol turned over the reins of EX.I.T.E. to other volunteers.
“It took quite a bit of time to produce, but now it is an ‘off-the-shelf’ program. All the documentation is kept in a team room,” says Carol. “I have a ‘How to run a Camp’ document in there with links to other documents. It’s very easy for someone to run a Camp now.”
“I am very proud that I succeeded in providing inspirational activities to impressionable girls,” says Carol. “And that they had lots of fun—you have got to have fun to be passionate.” To those starting volunteering projects she adds, “Enjoy the journey, have fun and you will learn a great deal about yourself.”