Rebecca Yeboah says she has never seen her girls so engaged.

Sure, the eighth-graders at Girls Inc. of Bessemer enjoy their exercise program, have fun while they learn cooking skills and are hands-on with their craft activities – all of which are important activities for their development as productive young members of society.

But it was when they got the opportunity to learn how to create and maintain their own password-protected Web site – Speak Out – that things really started clicking for them.

That opportunity came about when Rosie O’Beirne of UAB’s Center for Urban Affairs was approached by Girls Inc. of Bessemer and Girls Inc. of Crestwood about a new service-learning project.

O’Beirne and four UAB students who were fulfilling internship requirements (Osa Erhunmwunsee, Michael Frederick, Brittlynn Hall and Christopher Watson) set up a Web-based multimedia project for the after-school programs that enables the girls to create and maintain their own Web site.

The results at both locations have been enlightening and encouraging.

“These girls were just so taken in by the whole experience,” says Yeboah, the Science Math and Relevant Technology (SMART) coordinator for the Bessemer site. “It was hands-on training in a lot of areas: learning to operate a camera, a Mac computer, being responsible for a Web site. It was far and away the favorite activity they had this year.”

The Speak Out site is an online community that brings together the two area Girls Inc. groups. The participants were challenged to document their communities through photo essays and personal blogs as a way to create a dialogue about issues that are important to them.

“Girls Inc. wanted a program that focused on the Web, multimedia and technology,” O’Beirne says. “They wanted to provide an outlet for girls to voice their opinions and express who they are in a safe way. We took the UAB students and had them brainstorm and see what we could do.”

The decision was to arm the 22 girls — 11 at both locations — with digital cameras and teach them to tell stories about their community through digital images and Web technology.

The girls chose their own topics, including music and education, obesity, garbage in their community and school life.

“There is just a whole new set of possibilities that’s been opened for them through this program,” says Crestwood SMART Coordinator Lisa Sutton. “One of the girls at our center went out for her birthday and got the same digital camera they used for this project. Another girl is really into art, and she’s interested in taking photographs from an artistic angle.

“It definitely had an impact on them.”

The program, funded by the Thomas H. and Jarman F. Lowder Foundation, has other benefits, as well.

O’Beirne says research shows children are introduced to multimedia technology on the Internet during their seventh- and eighth-grade years. Sometimes-controversial sites like, and become must-visit Web pages for kids, and that then immediately brings the issue of safety to the forefront. There’s been a lot of media attention during the past six months about these social networking Web sites, and O’Beirne’s students expanded their focus to include Internet safety and appropriate Web posts.

“I was looking at and as the parent of a 13-year-old it’s frightening,” O’Beirne says. “Kids are growing up in a time when surfing the Web is effortless to them. Some have no sense of how very public their communication is.

“They need to know that they can’t post things like their phone numbers or their schedules, and you have to watch what you say in general,” she notes. “If you’re an upstanding individual you have to think real critically how you choose to promote yourself.”

O’Beirne says her students really bonded with the children and put to practice what they were learning in the classroom.

“This is a good service-learning engagement for our students because they were encouraged to learn through experience,” she says.

Girls Inc. wants to continue the partnership, as does O’Beirne. As for the girls, they will continue to update their Web site and stay involved in watching their communities.

“The real results are about to come,” O’Beirne says. “These students have a wonderful opportunity. They can continue to discuss issues affecting each other, their lives and their community.”