HERMANAS: A Bold STEM Outreach Model for Girls in Disenfranchised Communities

 

This blog was posted on behalf of Gabriela A. Gonzalez. She is Deputy Director of U.S. Corporate Affairs at Intel and a PhD student at Arizona State University. She is also the first in her family to graduate from college.

  

 

 

I’ve had the honor and opportunity to personally connect with thousands of middle and high school girls over my 25 year career in engineering to help spark their interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers. I’m certainly not alone in this journey as similar efforts are replicated every day by thousands of kindred brothers and sisters at Intel and all over the world. Why is it then, that despite the vast amounts of investments, research, and interventions to disrupt the gender gap in STEM fields, we still have not moved the needle in any significant way? I’m certain that neither the questions nor their respective answers are that simple. They go far beyond the cultural, environmental, economic, political, or social factors that are often cited in research journals, media articles, and blogs about the lack of gender representation in engineering and technology fields.

For girls in disenfranchised communities specifically—places and spaces where STEM remains largely out of sight, out of mind, and out of reach for girls, families, schools, and their communities at large—the more critically relevant questions and answers are buried deeper in their personal experiences and perceptions built over time. Being an engineer at heart, figuring out how to design more effective interventions to disrupt trends of inequity, particularly with respect to girls from low-income neighborhoods and other similarly excluded communities, is also always at the center of my quest to help democratize STEM education and professions. That’s how the IC3-CET model was born.

IC3-CET stands for Industry/Community College Collaboration and Conversations, Experiences, and Tools. The original concept was based on a design conceived by Maria Reyes and myself at Phoenix College, both expert practitioners of STEM outreach programs for students of color, particularly those belonging to low-income and working classes. The intended target audience for this outreach model is STEM-risk minority girls, defined as attending Title 1 middle and high schools and who may fit one or more of the following characteristics:

 

  • Unawareness or complete lack of interest in STEM
  • Lack of resources, role models, and/or institutional support to help improve academic and self-confidence in math and science
  • High-potential for dropping out of school or opting out of college altogether

Far from the traditional STEM outreach target demographic, the design was intentionally to enable access for girls who would potentially never have considered STEM without this type of intervention. I call it our “99% opportunity” because less than 1% of all bachelors’ degrees awarded at 4-year academic institutions go to women in engineering (NSF Statistics). Informed by the IC3-CET model and a passion to make a difference, the first “Hermanas: Diseña Tu Futuro / Sisters: Design Your Future” Conference took place at South Mountain Community College in 2005. For thirteen years now, thanks to the hundreds of Intel volunteers, Intel Foundation Volunteer Matching grants, and external partnerships, this conference has successfully grown and scaled organically to several community colleges and universities across Arizona, Oregon, and Guadalajara, Mexico, positively impacting over 5,000 young girls, and counting.

Girls working together at the Hermanas Conference

Another guiding design principle of the IC3-CET model for the Hermanas Conference is based on increasing the STEM self-efficacy and inclusion of the participants. The one-day workshop introduces students to engineering, computer science, and related STEM disciplines; provides hands-on experiences to build problem-solving and team-building skills; and includes informational sessions on preparing for academic and professional success in a safe and highly interactive environment. Girls participate in hands-on engineering design projects coordinated by college faculty, engage in candid conversations with women from similar backgrounds, and attend an educational resource fair. Past participants have successfully matriculated into partner community colleges to start their engineering or related STEM careers. Every element of the IC3-CET model was designed with purpose and heart, in hopes of resonating and making a difference.

Although we have only started to move the needle with respect to the representation of young women in engineering majors and careers, there is hope. Research and more effective outreach are unraveling the nuances that inform future policy and programmatic interventions are gaining traction. We still have a long way to go but the shift in demographics and the contagious momentum around girls in STEM is driving enough government, industry, philanthropic, and academic interest and resources to continue this bold yet exciting journey.

And as one of my comadres always says: Go Hermanas!

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