Latina girls, the fastest growing group of female students in the nation, face enormous challenges to their future prosperity. Nationwide an estimated 41 percent of Latinas fail to graduate high school. The employment picture for both dropouts and high school graduates remains bleak, with just 53 percent and 69 percent, respectively currently employed, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
For many Latina girls a college degree, let alone a degree in sciences, might seem like something as far-fetched as Avatar. That was, until January 30, when 80 girls from DuPage area middle, junior and high schools came to Elmhurst College to participate in an educational event aimed at encouraging Latina students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
The “Dare to Dream” STEM conference grew out the “Dare to Dream: Get Educated!” event, hosted last year by the American Association of University Woman and held at Elmhurst, which focused on exposing 8th grade Latina girls and their mothers to the benefits of higher education. Some of those girls returned for the recent free conference, a joint venture between the AAUW and Elmhurst College.
Projected to be among the fastest growing occupations over the next decade, the real benefit of STEM careers, particularly in engineering and computer science, is that these fields offer well-paying jobs with just a bachelor’s degree. “A STEM degree can open so many doors,” said Linda Krause, coordinator of the STEM conference and director of the Master’s in Computer Information Systems program at Elmhurst. “I want women to know the wealth of options that are out there for them.”
The reality isn’t pretty. From 1996 to 2007, the latest figures available, the percentage of women who earned degrees in computer science fell from 28 percent to 19 percent, and the percentages for those earning degrees in engineering (19 percent) and physics (21 percent) remained fairly stagnant, according to an upcoming report by the AAUW, “Why So Few? Women and Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” Some good news: women still have healthy and increasing representations among degree earners in the biological sciences (60 percent), chemistry (50 percent) and math (almost 50 percent).
With Latina role models lacking in STEM fields, the event’s opening speaker Argentina Leyva, a chemical engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, embodies the successful Latina science professional. Leyva, who turned her dream of coming to the United States into a reality when she received a full scholarship to pursue her a masters degree at Georgia Institute of Technology, challenged the girls to think about their dreams in concrete terms, and concrete steps.
“If you don’t have dreams, you don’t have a destination,” said Leyva. “You have to study. As long as you never give up, it will happen.” She used the Big Bang theory of the universe to encourage the girls to stay in school and reach for the stars. “Low energy isn’t going to take you anywhere,” she said. “The same energy that drives successful people drives us. We all have the same potential.”
Aside from learning about STEM careers, participants like Samantha Mendez, a freshman at Fenton High School in Bensenville, said she attended the conference precisely to be inspired. “I want to learn more about how to achieve our goals in life,” she said.
While a handful of girls raised their hands to tell Levya they want to be teachers, lawyers, pediatricians—even a forensic scientist—most still don’t know what they want to pursue or what’s even possible. To that end, the conference featured four concurrent workshops in chemistry, mathematics, computer science and geographical information sciences.
Most of the girls, like Sarah Wojasik, an 8th grader from Mannheim Middle School in Melrose Park, had never been on a college campus. “I really like the facilities,” said Wojasik, who enjoys chemistry and is considering pursuing it in college. Just walking to the different workshops held in Daniels Hall and the Schaible Science Center provided another avenue to inspire. Conference volunteers answered questions about college life, encouraged the girls to apply, and gave mini tours of the campus, including the Illinois Lecture Hall, whose size left the mostly middle school crowd awestruck.
The workshops, taught by Elmhurst faculty and college student volunteers, focused on hands-on learning and real-life applications. In the math workshop, Dr. Catherine Crawford used a card trick to explain iterated maps and fixed points, which can be applied to population studies and charting financial investments. Beatrice Rios, a 7th grader from Mannheim came away with an immediate use: She couldn’t wait to get home to try the card trick on her little brother. “I’m into magic, so it’s great to learn a new trick,” she said. Rios also gave her approval of “that was really cool” during the experiment in the chemistry workshop, led Dr. Kimberly Lawler-Sagarin, where students extracted and analyzed the pigment in spinach leaves.
During the workshop on geographical information systems, Dr. Rich Schultz helped students use GIS software to track real-time earthquakes. The girls virtually bounced around the globe calling out areas with recent seismic activity. As part of the goal to tie the workshops into career avenues, Schultz gave a concrete example that caused some jaws to drop. One of his former female students now monitors nuclear proliferation worldwide for the Department of Defense. “She’s just 23 and she makes six figures,” said Schultz. “You can go lots of places in this field and do meaningful work.”
Down the hall, in the computer science workshop, run by Krause, the girls created their own minute-long animated movies, which were screened for the class. Some girls created characters with wings that could fly or short plot lines about overcoming adversity and getting along. The girls clapped and cheered at the end of each short. Could the next James Cameron be in the crowd? For conference organizers and these young Latinas, it’s all about the possibilities.