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PCC coordinates fun Hermanas Conference to introduce STEM to Latinas
Photos and Story by James Hill
It seemed like a typical high school chemistry lab. The teacher asked some questions about elements, but the students were shy to answer and remained quiet.
Then, the balloons that Portland Community College chemistry instructor Karen Radakovich set up exploded in a series of loud blasts and rainbow-colored explosions that brightened not only the stucco of Building 7 but the faces of the gathered Latinas. They were participating in the Fourth Annual Hermanas Conference last month at PCC’s Rock Creek Campus. The purpose of the event is to increase the number of underrepresented female students choosing to go to college and inspire them to pursue an education in engineering and science.
The controlled explosions were part of the session “The Chemistry of Fireworks,” and each balloon contained different compounds that make up the brilliant colors of pyrotechnics. Each balloon exploded in different colors, and the girls had to work to figure out which compound made the blast by going back to the lab and putting those compounds dabbed on unmarked swabs under a burner.
“The hands-on activities were great,” said Hillsboro High School sophomore Rubby Marquez. “The information and workshops were really useful.”
More than 225 girls from Hillsboro, Beaverton, Forest Grove and Portland metro high schools participated in the conference. There were 10 group sessions covering not only fireworks, but facts about sugar, physics, 3-D printing and pharmacy as a career, which was hosted by Pacific University’s School of Pharmacy.
“I didn’t know pharmacy was such a great career,” said Aloha High School senior Susan Villanueva. “Learning about all of the prospective fields I could go into was nice. They were all so interesting.”
Hopefully, this interest in the sciences will translate into Latinas entering technical careers where minorities and women are grossly underrepresented.
“This all is designed to inspire girls to consider STEM as a career option and elevate the opportunities they have in their lives,” said Hirally Santiago, an industrial engineer.
Another goal was to give confidence to the young women by having them talk with female engineers who come from similar backgrounds. Right now, companies like Intel have a severe shortage in engineers who are minority or female. The girls got a chance to hear conference keynote speaker Diana H. Perez, who is the Deputy Monument Manager for Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, talk about STEM. During panel discussions, they learned about how women engineers got to where they are today.
“I’m a person who looks like them and comes from a similar background who they can ask about how I got here,” said Miriam Ceja, a 12-year chemical engineer. “At the end, I told them to ‘Echale ganas,’ which means ‘to go and get it.’”