When Raquel Aguillon, a youth education advocate for Multnomah County in Oregon, looks around the science and technology classes at Portland-area schools, she sees firsthand what reports have consistently documented: The faces of Latina girls are often nowhere to be found.
"At a national, state, and local level you don't see many professional Latina women in math, science, and technology," says Aguillon. And absent those role models, Latina girls often don't see these fields as interesting and relevant to their lives -- and don't see careers in these lucrative areas as even a remote possibility.
"No one's turning them on. No one's motivating them," says Aguillon. "It's time we do something different."
Forging New Partnerships
Driven by her desire to try "something different," Aguillon approached Marilyn Johnson and her staff at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Her goal: to embark on a partnership to explore ways to encourage Latina girls -- and the larger Latino community -- to become engaged in science and technology.
Through a $30,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) planning grant, OMSI launched its Latinas en Ciencia project, designed to forge ties with Portland's growing Latino community (which for the most part didn't visit OMSI or participate in the museum's programs and classes) and to educate OMSI staff on strategies to engage and encourage girls to explore science and technology.
OMSI's two-pronged approach consisted of education and outreach. During the first part of this year, museum staff sponsored a series of symposia designed to help them better understand not only the issues surrounding girls and science and technology, but also the broader Latino culture and how it impacts girls' participation in these critical areas. Working with two local community organizations, they also organized two science and technology programs for Latina girls.
"When you look around our classes at the museum you see very few Latinas," explains OMSI's Marilyn Johnson, who heads up the Latinas en Ciencia project. "We wanted to begin engaging girls at an early age -- to start growing their interest and to make the museum feel like home."
A New Cadre of Leaders
When a group of middle school girls from the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement's (OCHA) OFELIA program visited OMSI for the first time, the museum felt like anything but home. "They were shy and uncomfortable," recalls Johnson. But slowly, she adds, through a series of visits in which the girls toured exhibits, participated in workshops, and explored activities, the once-tentative group came into its own.
The girls had the opportunity to shine when the Latinas en Ciencia project sponsored a symposium titled "Families and Science" -- a daylong event in which Latino families were invited to learn more about exploring science with their children and to tour the museum. Their hosts: the once-shy middle school girls from the OFELIA program.
The girls led their families on tours of the museum and assisted siblings and parents with a variety of science-related activities. "It gave the girls a chance to really shine," says Johnson. The day was so successful, in fact, that OMSI is now holding a Latino Family Day once a month, complete with Spanish-speaking guides.
As phase one of the Latinas en Ciencia project comes to a close, OMSI staff and community members have submitted a second NSF grant proposal that would greatly expand the museum's outreach programs for Latina girls and the broader Latino community.
Proposed programs include:
- Expanding Club Ciencia, a science and technology club for Latina girls in grades 3-5, held at Villas de Clara Vista, a North Portland housing center.
- Establishing a science and technology class for girls at an elementary school in Tigred, a suburb of Portland.
- Beginning an after-school science and technology club for girls in White Salmon, a rural community in Washington State.
- Organizing a museum camp-in for Latina girls and female mentors from around the Portland community.
"We've seen a huge turnaround already," says Johnson. "We've made connections and raised awareness. Those are great first steps."