Latinas Design Their Futures in STEM

In September, about 200 high-school Latinas from around the Valley of the Sun descended on the campus of Chandler-Gilbert Community College to get a taste of STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. This year’s second Hermanas Conference – for the first time aimed at middle-school Latinas – took place yesterday at the same college campus, offering a big head-start to even younger students.

The young scientists crafted and test-landed small-scale replicas of the Mars rover Curiosity and problem-solved their way out of a moon landing gone wrong. They extracted DNA from strawberries and sat down with a panel of engineers for a no-holds-barred Q&A session.

Students discuss Mars landing strategies with an Intel volunteer.

The name of this free community event is Hermanas: Diseña tu Futuro, or Sisters: Design Your Future. The one-day conference brings high-school and now middle-school students to a local college campus to let them experience STEM firsthand – so they’re more likely to envision themselves in a STEM major and career.

According to Intel’s Marge Goodman, the experience is key to increasing the number of Latinas in science and engineering. “Without that firsthand glimpse into what is truly possible, they may never conceive of themselves in a rewarding STEM career. We’re here to show them it can be a reality.”

Why Latinas?  A 2011 National Science Foundation report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering revealed that minority women make up less than 10 percent of employed scientists and engineers. Hispanic women represent just 1 percent of this group.

In her welcome speech to the students, Maricopa Community Colleges Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Dr. Maria Harper Marinick said that choices made now can lead to more choices in the future.

“The Arizona economy is dependent on you. It’s growing fast and many Latinas are choosing not to graduate from high school and college,” she said. “But eight out of 10 jobs require a college degree.”

During the Mars rover design workshop, a student named Asia Robles represented her team as she dropped a “space craft” from a stage. The vehicle was made of straws, a paper cup, rubber bands, index cards and marshmallows – for their shock-absorbing properties.

The aim was to make a soft landing without tipping over or falling apart. Asia’s team’s design landed upright and intact. “Fourth time’s a charm!” she declared. She said she already has a STEM career in mind, but didn’t know where to start or what classes to take.

“I actually Googled ‘how to get into college,’” she said.

Asia wants to go to veterinary school in England and plans to be a small animal vet. She said she took notes during the panelist Q&A session and has a clearer picture of what she needs to do now – while still in high-school – in order to be ready for a STEM major.