Inspiring Careers in STEM with the DIY Girls Program

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The opportunities and experiences we’re afforded early in life have immense power to shape the direction we choose to take later. A case in point is MIT-trained electrical engineer Luz Rivas, who also holds a master’s degree in Technology in Education from Harvard. To be clear, her skill sets are not what makes her exceptional; rather, what she did with them is.

Rivas recalls: “I first got interested in engineering and technology 30 years ago when I was in 5th grade. My class had four Apple IIe computers, and my teacher taught us to program in Logo and BASIC. This was my first time using technology to create something, and I loved it. In 6th grade, my teacher continued teaching me to program and took some of us to what would now be called a hackathon for kids at our local university. When I entered middle school, I chose to take computer programming again since it was something I was already familiar with and I didn’t want to take cooking. These experiences sparked an interest in me to pursue a technology career, and after high school I was on my way to MIT to study electrical engineering.”

Growing up in Pacoima, Calif., a predominantly Latino neighborhood that is one of the oldest and most impoverished in the northern San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, her career path was uncommon, but she never forgot the impact that her first exposure to technology and programming made on her in the 5th grade. After finishing grad school and working in science and tech education for 10 years, she decided to go back to her old neighborhood and become the catalyst for many girls to follow in her footsteps.

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In 2013, Rivas approached administrators at her former school, Telfair Elementary, asking if they had any extra space to lend to a program she wanted to start. Much to her delight, her own 5th grade classroom was unused at the time, and with nothing more than bare essentials, she started the first DIY Girls after-school class, entitled “Creative Electronics.” The program was held for two hours, three times a week, and 5th-grade girls from the school were taught to create simple circuits, e-textiles, conductive art, video games, and more.

In the short time that has passed, the DIY Girls program has grown exponentially, now serving nearly 10 times the number of girls in three elementary schools (two of which have dedicated spaces) and two high schools, as well as mobile programs at the local community center and library.

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This past summer, DIY Girls added an Othermill to their arsenal of tools. Ruby Rios, their director of design, who had previous experience with CNC mills through her art education, notes, “We were really excited to get one because creating various designs and intricate shapes could be done easily. The experience of using machines has been empowering and fun. I’m glad that our girls can take part!”

Rios and Sylvia Aguiñaga, the director of curriculum, have been the main staff members in charge of introducing the Othermill to the girls. Aguiñaga notes that their pre-assembled Othermill was easy to get up and running using the Getting Started guide, but that they ran into issues searching for simple and free design software. They decided to get the girls working with Inkscape, which took a bit of tinkering and one-on-one mentoring, so they’d love to start the girls off with a more user-friendly interface. She added, “The girls love the machine and really enjoy watching it work. I think once our staff gets a better handle on how to use it most efficiently, things can take off.”

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Though they haven’t started using the Othermill to create custom PCBs yet, that’s a skill set they intend to teach in the future. For the meantime, Rios says the girls are excited about the ability to now engrave and cut a variety of materials. Before the Othermill was introduced, Rios spent some time making simple heart cutouts and engraving names to show its potential.

Aguiñaga adds, “The Othermill Instructables page seems to be growing, so we’re excited to try out new projects. DIY Girls staff is definitely eager to make PCB light-up jewelry. We think our girls will really enjoy designing and creating their own. We may need a few more Othermills!“

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