They may love all things sci-tech, but first and foremost they are girls-and they’ve made that part of their appeal

They may love all things sci-tech, but first and foremost they are girls-and they’ve made that part of their appeal

Or even Ellen Spertus, a Mills College professor and research scientist at Google-and the 2001 winner of the Silicon Valley “Sexiest Geek Alive” pageant

It’s sweltering in Boston, and a dozen Tufts University coeds are out in shorts and tanks, attracting the usual stares. Only today the stares are for a different reason: the girls are huddled around a 750-pound machine that looks like a spaceship, long and wide with a bubble-shaped cockpit open to reveal a mass of pipes and wires. It’s actually a solar car-one they’ve built from the ground up and hope to race next year. Suddenly sparks fly, and the girls jump back. They may be engineering whizzes, but they know a hazard when they see one. They call a teacher over to help solve the problem, as Alex McGourty, 21, gets ready to take the wheel. A junior with blond hair and freckles, she built her first car engine in high school: a biodiesel “veggie mobile” she ran on McDonald’s fryer oil. McGourty revs out of the driveway, and almost immediately dislodges the car’s chain. Campus police block off the street, and the baseball team, just returned from practice, lines up to watch. “Look out,” a construction worker yells. “It’s the Nerd Girls!”

The Nerd Girls may not look like your stereotypical pocket-protector-loving misfits-their adviser, Karen Panetta, has a thing for pink heels-but they’re part of a growing breed of young women who are claiming the nerd label for themselves. In doing so, they’re challenging the notion of what a geek should look like, either by intentionally sexing up their tech personas, or by simply finding no disconnect between their geeky pursuits and more traditionally girly interests such as fashion, makeup and high heels. In fact, calling them “nerd” is no insult at all-the Nerd Girls have T shirts emblazoned with the slogan. The crew includes Cristina Sanchez, a master’s student in biomedical engineering (and a former cheerleader) who can talk for hours about aerodynamics. Caitrin Eaton, a freshman, asked her boyfriend for a soldering iron last Christmas. Juniors Courtney Mario and Perry Ross giggle when they talk about what fascinated them most about “No Country for Old Men”: how did the assassin’s air gun work?

These girl geeks aren’t social misfits; their identities don’t hinge on outsider status. They’ve modeled themselves after icons such as Tina Fey, whose character on “30 Rock” is a “Star Wars”-loving, tech obsessed, glasses-wearing geek, but who’s garnered mainstream appeal and a few fashion-magazine covers. Or on actress Danica McKellar, who coauthored a math theorem, wrote a book for girls called “Math Doesn’t Suck” and hispansky seznamovac–ď¬≠ aplikace posed in a bikini for Stuff magazine. They tune in to shows like “GeekBrief.TV,” a daily Web series hosted by 26-year-old Cali Lewis, and meet friends at Girl Geek Dinners, the first of which drew more than 600 women. However they choose to geek out, they consciously tweak the two chief archetypes of geeks: that they’re unattractive outcasts, and that they’re male. “For a long time, there’s been this stereotype that either you’re ugly and smart or cute and not suited for careers in math, science or engineering,” says Annalee Newitz, the co-editor of “She’s Such a Geek!”, a 2006 anthology of women writing about math, tech and science. “One of the big differences between Generation X geeks and girls in their teens now is really just an attitude-an indication that they’re much more comfortable.”

They grew up on gender neutral movies like “Hackers” and “The Matrix,” and saw the transformation of Willow on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from awkward geek to smart and sassy sex symbol

That comfort level has as much to do with culture as it does with technology. Depictions of geeks as socially awkward math whizzes date back to caricatures in tech-school humor magazines from the 1950s, such as MIT’s Voodoo. But the geeks of MIT were strictly male, as were subsequent takes on the stereotype, such as the nerdy men of 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds,” and Screech on “Saved by the Bell.” Today’s girl geeks are members of the first generation to have been truly reared on technology. They’ve watched the geeky pursuits of technology and comic books transform from fringe subculture to pop mainstream, and they’ve capitalized on that geek-chic mentality to elbow their way into it.