Latina girls are the least likely of any group to indicate that they’re interested in pursuing a career in the STEM fields, according to a Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities report. While Latina women comprise eight percent of the U.S. population, they make up just two percent of scientists and engineers.
Luckily, engineer Luz Rivas is aiming to change that with her DIY Girls after school program in her home neighborhood of Pacoima in Los Angeles.
Rivas grew up poor in L.A. with her sister and single mother, often sleeping in other people’s garages because they had no permanent home of their own. In fifth grade, Rivas used a computer at school and immediately fell in love. “I felt like I had a real skill. I always liked things that had a real answer,” she told Erica L Sánchez of NBC News. From then on, she took every science class she could and applied to MIT just to see if she could get in. She did. After overcoming initial fears about leaving L.A., she went to MIT, even though “It felt like it was another country,” she told Sánchez. “I had never met so many students who had parents who were college-educated. It was shocking to see kids whose parents were guiding them. I didn’t have that.”
Now Rivas is stepping in to guide other girls who don’t have role models in STEM fields. After grad school and various engineering jobs, Rivas moved back to Los Angeles in 2013 to start DIY Girls. Most of the fifth grade girls in the DIY Girls after school program are Latina and qualify for free or reduced lunch. Rivas teaches them how to use 3D printers, write computer code, make wearable electronics, build toys, and more.
According to its website, DIY Girls aims to provide “a continuous pathway of support to a technical career” for these girls all the way through high school. Rivas works to develop the girls’ confidence, so that they keep raising their hands and asking questions right on through middle school, when many girls clam up due to peer pressure. DIY Girls expanded its program to a second public school this year.
DIY Girls gets moms involved too, with meetups for women who want to learn technical skills including coding, woodworking, and electronics. Rivas said that many of the girls’ parents work in construction, and become interested in what their daughters are learning. “People in our community are not engineers, but they know how to make things. They know how to make everything,” she told Sánchez. And soon there will be a new generation of women in this neighborhood who can make anything they want to, as well.