STEM Program Takes Latina Girls to Stanford and Beyond

A Bay Area program aims to show young Latina girls that they can have a career working with computers in STEM fields. "We are trying to plant a seed that will give a better future for our community.”

STEM for Latina
Young, eager students learn coding as part of the STEM for Latina Girls program.

While Silicon Valley might be the heart of internet start-up culture, there are parts of the greater city where opportunities seem few and far between — especially for girls from immigrant communities. Aaliyah Rosete is one of 25 Mexican-American girls between the ages of 9 and 11 who participated in the STEM for Latina Girls program this year. Aaliyah and her team took part in the hackathon at Google, one of the activities that formed part of the program, and developed an anti-bullying website, called the “No Bullying Zone.” They were crowned the winning team.

Before this program, Aaliyah knew little about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or that she could have a meaningful and successful career in a a related field. Now her horizons have been broadened, and she is excited about the possibilities, even if she hasn’t quite settled on her future career.

Stephanie gets her hands dirty in one of the program's science experiments
Stephanie gets her hands dirty in one of the program’s science experiments

STEM Inspirations

The program, which takes place partially at Stanford University and is sponsored by the Mexican Consulate in San Jose along with a host of business partners, aims to encourage and support young Mexican-American girls in under-served communities to consider STEM as an educational and career pathway. The program offers incomparable support with partners such as Google, PayPal and Wizeline, a San Francisco-based technology company with deep ties to Guadalajara, Mexico. Wizeline founder and CEO Bismarck Lepe has been a champion for and partner of the program.

“Coming from that specific demographic, I have always felt that it is exposure that changes someone’s life,” said Lepe. “I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship to attend Stanford University, and once I got to Stanford it completely opened up the realm of possibility to me.”

Wizeline runs a similar program in Guadlajara, with programming classes for high school students, and Lepe says the impact of both has been tangible. He cites one of their women engineers, who was a young lady when she first went through the program and is now studying at the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state. She applied for an internship in their Guadalajara offices and will be joining Wizeline this summer as an intern. “She has come full circle,” he said. “Prior to the program, she had had no exposure to coding.”

The 2016 STEM for Latina Girls program
The 2016 STEM for Latina Girls program

For girls like Aaliyah and her peers, this program is a vital step. A 2015 policy update for the International Federation of University Women noted that “Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest proportion of female researchers, who account for 45.2% of all science researchers in the region.” While that is an impressive statement, there are disparities across the region and among immigrant populations.

In a presentation at the 2014 Science Centre World Summit, Lourdes Patino Barba, secretary of the board of the Mexican Society for the Public Communication of Science and Technology, and Julia Taguena Parga, associate director for scientific development at the National Council of Science and Technology, stated that the number of Mexican women studying science had multiplied almost 11-fold over the last two decades.

The Potential of Youth

Interestingly, the percentage of women in STEM in the United States has actually fallen. A 2015 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center compared data from 2004 and 2014 and found that women’s completion of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields feel across the board, with the biggest dip being in computer science (23% to 18%).

Within this context, the Mexican government’s program to encourage more Mexican-American girls to study and work in STEM fields is part of a larger drive to increase STEM interest among women and girls in the United States and indeed around the world.

The program offers a range of activities, including the Google hackathon, coding classes offered by Wizeline, and an engineering and math class at their school taught by volunteers from the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation, in which they built a roller coaster to measure speed and friction.

Building a roller coaster!
Building a roller coaster!

In addition the group of pupils from Mount Pleasant Elementary School in East San Jose, an underserved community, went to the Tech Museum and had a talk with Latina Ph.D. students at Stanford University, where they were helped to build a Lava-Lamp as a science experiment.

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Doctor Rodolfo Dirzo, who is Mexican and the director of Stanford University’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), offered the girls and their parents a talk about ecology and a tour of the university. The girls also received certificates of recognition for their participation in the program.

Perfect Partners

Martha Gutiérez, who has been spearheading the program for the Mexican Consulate, said that the program started three years ago as part of the Consulate’s services to Mexicans living in the United States. It developed as a result of a discussion that Martha had with her boss about the unique environment of Silicon Valley and how they could best make use of the environment to benefit the local Mexican-American community. Education was chosen as a means to motivate and inspire young Latinas.

The first iteration of the program included a visit to Facebook and collaboration with Stanford University. It has grown from there. “They are learning and having fun during the program,” said Gutiérez. “The hackathon was very inspiring for the girls. It was the first time that they had coding classes. They had very good ideas. They are very smart, and they are proving that they have all the capacity to be successful professionals. We know that STEM professionals make more money than other professionals, up to 26% more income.”

The program is quite personal for Lepe. “Growing up as a Latino in the U.S., as I looked around my community I didn’t have examples to mimic,” he said. “My parents were migrant field workers. So a program like this would have been amazing for me. Obviously, my daughter is going to grow up in a very different setting. My own network will be able to help her. As I look at the community I want to be sure that my network is also able to help the broader community.”

A Prototype Program

The program has been constrained by a limited budget and staff capacity, so at the moment only 25 Latina girls are chosen for each program. Butthe program with Mount Pleasant Elementary School has been so successful that the consulate has been inundated with requests to extend it to other schools in the city.

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“One of the problems with the academic system is that typically you go through it without understanding what is on the other side,” said Lepe. “There are some fields that are understood because they become part of popular culture, but there are so many other fields that most people don’t even know exist. So exposing these kids to it at a young age gives them something to strive for, something to shoot for.”

Gutiérez said that they have other types of programs that focus on high school. “We want to have more programs like this one. We are finding so many amazing partners like Wizeline, like PayPal, like Facebook,” she said. “We thought that an early age was a good time to target. They are close to technology, but sometimes they don’t think how are these things are made and we are trying to motivate them to be curious about it.”

The program is attracting attention from other Mexican consulates in the United States, with Boston and Dallas reaching out to learn more and planning to roll out similar programs in their cities.

“My dream is that these girls will become scientists, engineers, in very successful professional life and have our community be better represented in the environment of Silicon Valley,” said Gutiérez. “Because we are smart, and we have all the capacity to do it. We are trying to plant a seed that will give a better future for our community.”

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