No simple answer for lack of Latinas in STEM fields

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WALLA WALLA — The under-representation of Hispanic girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers is a challenge being tackled locally.

Community partners, like Whitman College and the local chapter of the American Association of University Women, are supporting the Garrison Middle School Space Project.

Answering why Latinas are lacking in STEM fields is trickier to explain.

“Just in general, girls don’t choose math and science, and Latina girls really don’t,” said Diana Erickson, former bilingual coordinator for Walla Walla Public Schools.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with intelligence,” Erickson said. “I think it has to do with perhaps roles that we play in life, the male and female gender roles.

“I think that up to a certain point in school girls are as excited in math and science. And then it just kind of changes.”

Erickson and her husband, Bill Erickson, are volunteers with the Latino Club at Walla Walla High School. The Ericksons also established a Hispanic Youth Exploring Engineering and Sciences camp that will mark its third summer this year.

For about the last eight years, the Ericksons have taken teams of Hispanic youths to compete in the Bonneville Power Administration Regional Science Bowl in Portland.

We’ve done a lot to encourage both (Latino) boys and girls to enroll in math and science,” Erickson said. “We’re closing that gap.”

Andrea Dobson, who taught astronomy at Whitman College for 24 years, has seen students come and go. She said retaining Hispanic youths, particularly girls, into the fields is a challenge.

“We don’t have a lot who stay in science,” Dobson said. “They may come in interested in science fields, but we lose a higher percentage of them to other areas that they’re interested in.

“It would be nice to have a more diverse bunch of science students. I’m hoping this program is one of those types of things to maintain these girls’ interests in science and have them go on to science.”

Dobson is working with the Garrison Space Project, leading 20 middle-school girls in explorations of astronomy through weekly visits to the campus.

“I was excited to see how excited and enthusiastic these girls were given the fact that Latina women are underrepresented in STEM fields,” Dobson said. “I hope that they can keep up their enthusiasm.”

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