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, and there's a lot of electricity."
Heeding those admonitions, the girls delicately remove small screws, lift the tops off the machines, and peer into a mysterious mix of 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 that 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. "Somehow, girls have this picture of ... a culture that's ... not very inviting to them," said Karen Lebovich, director of AAUW's educational foundation.
She said computer camps for girls have become increasingly popular to kindle interest in technology and dispel stereotypes: "They help girls develop skills in fun and relaxed environments. They also have speakers who become role models and [the girls] can see that these women have interesting lives."
Bosse, a computer network administrator at the college, and Penny Foster Shiver, who teachers computer information systems there, developed the camp curriculum. The instructors hope the camp also helps to strengthen the girls' self-esteem and to promote teamwork.
"Our goal here is to say that 'You can do it,'" Shiver said. "This is a critical age for girls; they're struggling with issues of popularity and trying to belong."
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.
Last week, she designed a Web site and visited the National Security Agency's National Cryptologic Museum, where two female NSA employees talked about their work with computers.
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.
She said her father - a computer specialist at the Naval Academy - encouraged her to attend the camp. "I like that we get to play on the Internet and I like taking the computer apart," said Andrea, who wants to become a doctor.
Although the AAUW study concluded that many middle school-age girls have negative perceptions about computer culture, girls at the camp insisted they don't hold these views. They said they never equated computers with geeks, and often use computers to visit favorite Web sites and to participate in teen chat rooms.
But the report notes that equality in the technology world "cannot be measured by how many girls send e-mail, use the Internet or make PowerPoint presentations."
To move into jobs in software and Web design, e-commerce and network engineering, it said, girls must gain a deeper understanding of technology and be able to apply it to a variety of subjects.
That's why Kathleen M. Happ, dean of the college's business, computing and technology studies, thought a girls computer camp for middle schoolers would be a good idea.
The camp has influenced Kathryn Filkins, 13, who liked what she heard from one of the speakers, 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."