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BACK-TO-SCHOOL BASICS: A Do-It-Yourself Approach to STEM Education for Girls
Posted On August 6, 2019
This article was originally published on April 5, 2016.

Sylvia Aguiñaga never could have predicted that an NPR broadcast would change her life.

While driving home from her job as a substitute teacher one afternoon in December 2013, she turned on NPR’s Latino USA program. Aguiñaga loved subbing—the kids were great, and it was a good way to make money while working on her M.L.I.S. at San Jose State University—but sometimes it was frustrating. She worked with the students only one day at a time, so there were few opportunities to make a true impact on their lives.

That day, Latino USA featured a woman named Luz Rivas, who had founded the Los Angeles-based organization DIY Girls. She spoke about why there are so few Latino technologists, suggesting that a lack of access to resources leads to a lack of opportunity for getting students interested at a young age. Those students who do get to learn about technology aren’t encouraged to actually create anything with it. Aguiñaga’s interest was piqued, and she left thoughts of her day behind to listen to Rivas talk about her passion project, a nonprofit that provides hands-on technology programs to girls and women.

When Aguiñaga got home, she checked out DIY Girls on Facebook, excited to learn more about its initiatives. A couple of months later, Rivas posted that she was looking for a program coordinator, and Aguiñaga jumped at the chance to apply. She had always loved working with children and enjoyed tinkering with electronics. She had even taught herself how to write computer code as a hobby. From what she knew about DIY Girls, those skills would make her a perfect fit. She was the first person to interview, and she got the job in February 2014.

Flash-forward to 2016: Aguiñaga is now serving as DIY Girls’ director of curriculum, a position that allows her to create all of the STEM content that is covered at DIY Girls sessions. She makes decisions based on what she thinks the girls will enjoy doing as well as what projects will teach them the tech skills that are the organization’s focus. “I try things out, which is probably one of my favorite things about working with DIY Girls—being able to try out these projects myself … and observing what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom. I also teach. … I get to see how our girls interact with the projects that we do,” Aguiñaga says.

This year, she will graduate with her M.L.I.S. Thanks to that Latino USA broadcast, Aguiñaga has a fulfilling career path ahead of her.

Getting Started

Rivas, DIY Girls’ founder and executive director, has an electrical engineering background. “I was an engineer for a few years, and then I transitioned into STEM education. … [A]fter working in that field for years, I wanted to start something in my own community, so I started DIY Girls at my own elementary school in Los Angeles. And I wanted it to be a program where girls could explore and be creative by using technology,” she says.

With help from a friend who taught first grade at the school, Rivas met with the principal and outlined her plan for the program, which would go beyond a 1-day workshop. She believed that continuity would generate more interest from and better results for the girls, so she proposed having sessions twice a week for 10 weeks. Girls would learn how to make toys and other inventions, program video games, work with conductive paint, and create wearable electronics. The principal was supportive and offered her a space to hold the sessions.

That was back in 2012. Since then, DIY Girls has branched out to an additional seven schools; it has grown from serving about 30 girls to nearly 500. And it now caters to both elementary and middle school students. Rivas has recruited a support staff: Aguiñaga, Evelyn Gomez (director of programs), Ruby Ríos (director of design), and Diana Bocanegra (program mentor).

STEM Programs for Girls and Women

DIY Girls has evolved into a multifaceted organization with a variety of events in the Los Angeles area. Its workshops for girls run for 2 hours, and sometimes DIY Girls finds sponsors. “We held one at Microsoft, and at other companies in Los Angeles that opened up their space to kids to learn either coding or other projects. … It’s a great opportunity for kids to see what tech companies are like,” says Rivas. Girls in middle school can attend DIY Girls summer camps to get hands-on engineering experience. Each week has a theme designed to introduce girls to the technology field. They create final projects for the end of camp.

More than 700 women are part of the DIY Girls Women’s Meetup group, which was actually the first thing Rivas created when she was thinking about how to get started with DIY Girls in schools. Members have varying levels of technology experience. They can attend monthly meetings to learn basic concepts, collaborate on projects, and continue developing their skills. Topics have included woodworking, coding, web development, and welding. “[I]t was just a way to bring a community of women together that are interested in these DIY and maker skills, and what resulted out of that too is now some of them are mentors to the younger girls, or they’re on our board of directors or advisors, and so we really have developed a community that is helping us with programs for girls,” says Rivas.

Elementary and middle school teachers can get professional development hours with DIY Girls teachers’ workshops. These sessions present an overview of the projects created in the girls’ workshops, provide experience with these projects (by having teachers work with electronic circuits, simple robotics, and computer programming, etc.), and offer training for implementing these projects in the classroom. Teachers leave with a kit of supplies for their classroom.

“Our main source of funding is foundations, corporate grants, and individual donors,” says Rivas. She has been focused on bringing in more earned revenue by creating an online store and charging for attendance at the summer camps and other programs. “[A]ll of the programs that we run, they’re in low-income areas where girls can’t afford to pay, but there are some areas where parents can pay for the service, so we’re taking the same concept and offering it in areas where we can earn money for our services and then use that to pay for the ones that are free to the girls,” she says.

From Basic Skills to Pizza Platters

“What I like is that by creating these projects, girls gain a lot of confidence. And I like when they come up with their own ideas,” says Rivas. An important aspect of the DIY Girls sessions is encouraging them to use the design thinking process—they pinpoint a problem in their community and attempt to solve it using technology. “Last year, we focused on health issues, and there was a group of girls that made a new type of wheelchair,” she says. 

Usually, the sessions will start with basic skills first—for example, how circuits, switches, or motors work. “We teach them about the tools that they’re going to be using to create that circuit, so how to use proper tape and how to sew with conductive thread,” says Aguiñaga. Once they master these skills, they can create whatever they want. “Usually, they follow a schematic, which is an engineering diagram, and that’s what we really want to teach because these are things that real engineers use every day. The whole point is to get them to think critically.”

Each project is unique, says Aguiñaga. “And every girl can show their personality through what they make. … The other day we had them learning about motors and creating motor circuits, and this fifth-grader created a pizza platter where the pizza spins. … It makes me laugh sometimes, the stuff they make.”

Reaching Girls Beyond LA

Aguiñaga is currently working on starting DIY Girls Club, a program that would allow organizations to take up DIY Girls’ projects on their own. “We want to package the way we teach and our mission,” says Aguiñaga. These packages will contain the materials needed to do projects, a facilitator’s guide, and anything else necessary for starting a DIY Girls Club in communities around the country. They will be designed for running a 6-week program of 1-hour sessions. Rivas says DIY Girls will charge a few hundred dollars for the package—a low fee that could be fundraised for if needed. She’s working on finding sponsors that may want to fund clubs in various specific locations.

Coder Time

In addition to working for DIY Girls during her time at library school, Aguiñaga interned at the Los Angeles Public Library’s central branch, where she co-created Coder Time with children’s literature librarian Joanna Fabicon, who had received a grant that would fund her mission to introduce children to coding. “We shared a vision, but I had the code education, and I was going to get us to a point where we could create something,” Aguiñaga says. Coder Time aims to “create a space for code in libraries and schools and provide facilitators with really great resources to begin coding and really cultivating this idea that you can create with computers and not just consume.” In 2015, Fabicon and Aguiñaga started training facilitators from LA’s BEST, an afterschool program for students that partnered on the project, to begin teaching basic coding concepts to about 200 students (boys and girls this time), ages 9–12, from schools in the Los Angeles area. They also ran a club at the central library. Coder Time lasted 10 weeks, and at the end of the program, the participants came together at the library to present their projects. Local organizations such as DIY Girls and LA Makerspace came to conduct activities with the participants.

“I really wanted to make it as sustainable as possible, so I focused on creating resources that can be used over and over again without me there,” says Aguiñaga. She recently heard that “they’ve trained another 16 facilitators, and now they’re serving double the amount of kids for this coming year.”

As she gets closer to graduation, Aguiñaga says, “I want to keep empowering kids to create awesome stuff with technology. I will continue doing this with DIY Girls, and I plan to transition into a library setting. I would love to run a makerspace in a library. … DIY Girls is basically a makerspace, and we’ve created it as a team.”

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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