13 April 2016

Informal education equal opportunities for girls in STEM

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is a guest post by graduate student Mayra Sanchez as part of our ongoing series of posts where we ask students to share their experiences in science communication. 

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Workshop on recycling; the girls explored the longevity of the products that we discard every day, how to reduce the waste, and started a recycling program at the YWCA

I became interested in outreach in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), because I’ve always seen a gap in communication between the scientific community and the general public. I have been an informal educator for the past 10 years with most of my efforts directed towards raising awareness about marine environments, including recycling, ocean clean-up, and endangered marine species, all in the hope of improving the environmental quality of Puerto Rico. Outreach provided me with a fun and exciting outlet to get involved in my community and help close that gap in communication; recently I found another important direction and focus for my STEM outreach work.

In 2014, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Puerto Rico Branch gave me the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico at the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders, a conference where they arm students with tools on how to be a successful leader and discuss ongoing problems for women. That weekend helped me realize three things: 1) the scarcity of women professors were within the scientific field and their constant struggle between being productivity and their families, 2) the lack of puertorrican women in my faculty, and 3) the lack of women students within natural science that come from rural or underprivileged communities.

Once I was back in Puerto Rico, I needed to address these issues in some way, and the easiest way for me was to raise awareness. I became a member of the AAUW and got involved with the after-school program of the YWCA, which provides a space for girls from different public schools to go and do their homework, use computers with internet access, and develop enriching activities that motivate them to go to college. This was my first experience focusing on girls and steering them towards STEM fields. I volunteered as a tutor for mathematics and science, and along with a fellow graduate student, we provided workshops that would expose the girls to different scientific fields and raise their environmental awareness. It was a challenge because their schools and homes don’t encourage them to think of science as a career option.

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I continue to volunteer for the local branch of AAUW, and we are in the process of adapting two projects to fit the needs of puertorrican girls. The first, the BRIDGE Program, is a series of workshops built around the idea of “Building Relationships In order to Develop Girls’ Self-Esteem for the STEM fields.” The second is a pilot workshop on coding with the San Juan Wildlife Museum and the YWCA, the workshop is designed to attract girls to the field of computer science[1], one of the most unrepresented fields for women within STEM. This pilot workshop has the potential to turn into a coding club for girls of any age in San Juan and could open the door for other projects like a robotics club for high schoolers.

If you see a problem and you want to be part of a solution, there is always an outlet. For me it was AAUW and the YWCA. You just need to be motivated enough to donate your time and energy to it. That’s how my mission on empowering women began.

[1] If you want to get involved in computer science education for girls look up Girls Who Code and you can find their open source curriculum here.Also, check out the Tech-Savvy Program

-Mayra Sánchez-García is a Master’s student in the Department of Environmental Science at the University Of Puerto Rico Río Piedras Campus