In a classroom at Anne Arundel Community College, 18 middle school girls with screwdrivers in hand impatiently await instructions about how to dismantle a computer.
"These are not junk computers," instructor Catherine Bosse warns. "They're going to be used all next year, so when you take the tops off, we need to be a little bit careful because these are working systems.
"There's a lot of very sharp things in computers that can cut your hands," Bosse continues, "and there's a lot of electricity."
Heeding those admonitions, the girls delicately remove screws, lift the tops off the machines and peer into a mysterious mix of tangled colored wires and fragile-looking silver wires and knobs.
Community college officials are hoping that exploring the workings of computers might inspire these girls to pursue careers in technology -- a field overwhelmingly dominated by men, where jobs for highly skilled employees often go unfilled.
Besides taking computers apart, the 11- to 14-year-olds who enrolled in the college's first "Girls Technology Camp" will design a Web site, install software and hear from successful women in high-tech careers.
"We're trying to come up with a way to shore up their confidence in computers so that by the time they get to college, they're confident enough to stay in the field," said Sonia Linebaugh, assistant director of youth education programs at the college.
According to a report released this year by the American Association of University Women, women account for 20 percent of employees in the information technology field.
Experts say many girls shy away from math and science during their middle school years, limiting their chances of landing a high-paying technology job.
The AAUW study also found that many girls imagine that a technology career means spending all day hunched over a keyboard in the company of computer nerds.
Bosse, a computer network administrator at the college, and Penny Foster Shiver, who teachers computer information systems there, developed the curriculum. The instructors hope the camp helps strengthen the girls' self-esteem and promotes teamwork.
Bridget Rafferty, 14, said she's at the two-week camp because her mother signed her up "without telling me." Before starting camp, Bridget said, her only computer skill was signing on to America Online.
"They're fun if you know how to use them," Bridget said of computers. "And I'm in this class because I don't know how to use them."
Other girls came to the camp more comfortable with computers.
"Let's see, we found the expansion slots, the CPU [central processing unit] and the power supply," said Andrea Garner, 12, standing over her open computer and checking off internal parts.
The camp has influenced Kathryn Filkins, 13, who liked what she heard from Carole McCoy, vice president of learning systems and technology at the college. "I might go into writing software," she said. "I think she inspired me to get into a technology job. It seems really fun and challenging."