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Girls from modest families get lift in technology

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This photo taken Jan. 31, 2014, shows Lesly Hernandez, center, a senior at Jack E. Singley Academy in Irving, Texas managing a group in her after school robotics club to build a small catapult. Hernandez's team is working to build a robot for a regional competition. Other members of the club pictured include, from left, Minh Hguyen, Gerado Garza, Erick Franco and Armando Torres. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Matthew Busch)

This photo taken Jan. 31, 2014, shows Lesly Hernandez, center, a senior at Jack E. Singley Academy in Irving, Texas managing a group in her after school robotics club to build a small catapult. Hernandez’s team is working to build a robot for a regional competition. Other members of the club pictured include, from left, Minh Hguyen, Gerado Garza, Erick Franco and Armando Torres. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Matthew Busch)

IRVING, Texas — Men dug San Xavier mine in another century. They blew the rock apart with chemicals and scraped out copper for wires and machines. In the 1950s, they turned the tunnels into labs to teach the science of the earth to other men.

Last summer, four girls walked into the mine, by then part of the University of Arizona. They were about to start their senior years at Singley Academy — an Irving ISD high school in which students are chosen by lottery. Most of them had never been on a plane before, and even visiting a university was a rarity in their families.

The girls in Singley’s science, technology, engineering and math programs are taking some of the most difficult courses available — in fields nearly devoid of an entire gender. And though they are outnumbered, they’re determined to overcome the odds.

The girls were scientists already. Rubi Garcia had smashed her Barbie radio as a child, then repaired it. Lesly Hernandez was the household electrician to her mother and little brother who would ultimately call herself “the girl who helped wire the robot.”

Deep in the mine, Lesly stared at copper ore in the stone. She had thought it would be brown, but it glittered blue. To her, the metal looked like stars.

Lesly’s grandparents butcher their own meat in Mexico. Her mother manages a food court restaurant and dreams of opening a beauty parlor. Lesly, 18, wants to work for NASA.

Sent to Mexico as a child while her parents gained a foothold in the United States, she would hold hogs beneath her grandfather’s blade. Other girls played with dolls; Lesly wondered how pigs were put together.

Years later in Texas, her mother bought her a microscope kit and she lost herself in the layers of an onion. Her teenage phases were biology, biotechnology and now electrical engineering, with a special interest in robotics. Her friends were mostly boys.

There is one boy, always.

Lesly’s father is out of the picture. Her mother spends dawn to dusk at work or cosmetology school. So each day after class, Lesly drives her old Honda to an elementary school where her brother shoots toward her from the dismissal line like a magnet to its pole.

Asked how she spends her free time, Lesly asks for a definition of the term. Kevin, 6, is at her side throughout the obligations that consume her evenings and weekends: cooking, cleaning, robots, a gender revolution.

Twice a month after final bell, the Girls of Technology meet for bags of candy, charades or movies in a basement classroom. They don’t look like an academic club because they’re really a support group.

Lesly helped found the club as a shy freshman. Now she recruits younger girls into it, watching meetings from the back of the room with one eye on Kevin.

Other evenings, she takes her brother to a classroom down the hall to build the robot.

By February, it was little more than an aluminum frame and a brain of splayed wires. In six weeks, Lesly’s team had to make the robot nearly 4 feet tall, precise, invincible — able to catch and throw a ball in an arena full of rivals.

One of three girls among a dozen students in the room, Lesly tested the machine’s balance and adjusted its wheels while Kevin built his own with Legos. By the time she went home, she had promised her coach to come in early on Saturday and stay late the next week.

The coach, Tige Brown, ran his team hard and called Lesly his “special project.” He would go home and brag about her to his wife. And he’d worry a little.

Lesly can take her pick of universities. Brown spent the winter trying to steer her away from choosing the local community college instead. If she did, she could keep looking after Kevin while her mother finished school.

There’s a dynamic on Singley’s science floor: The freshman boys don’t want girls on their teams. The seniors seek them out.

It’s a start.

Assistant principal Kacy Barton spearheaded the Girls of Technology in Lesly’s freshman year — the beginnings of an effort to make Singley’s engineering and technology programs more female-friendly.

Five years ago, Barton said, girls sat isolated in classes full of boys, strangers to those who did the same across the hall. They would walk into chemistry labs that looked like bunkers. They would often not return.

“Girls don’t need foo-foo aesthetics. But they need color and labs that will appeal to them instead of walking into a cave,” Barton told The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/RqsL9j). “Females think differently. The guys get wrapped up in the technical side. ‘How are we going to make this work?’ Girls tend to respond to things they see changing the world around them.”

That’s why Lesly wants to make robots. She imagines them rolling across Mars or replacing missing limbs.

But the math is dismal. Women are still outnumbered more than 2-to-1 in science and engineering fields. The U.S. government counted about 1.5 million engineers in Lesly’s freshman year. Fewer than 1 percent were Hispanic women.

As Barton sees it, women need access to high-tech careers as much as those industries need women.

Sometimes, she said, she sees a group of boys come up with a complex plan for a project: “‘Let’s do this, do this, do this, do something else.’ And one of the girls reaches over and says, ‘If we just do these two steps, we’ll get this accomplished.'”

As the robot took shape over the winter, Lesly spent two weeks writing a speech to inspire girls in other schools. She was walking back from the machine shop one day — a teammate was milling out the robot’s catapult — when an administrator told her she had to cut her speech from five minutes down to one.

“Do you still want me to do it in Spanish?” Lesly asked.

The reply, with a chuckle: “You might as well eliminate the English.”

So Lesly struck the parts about her first microscope and Mexico — about nurses and secretaries, onions and the layers of things you can’t see until you know how to look.

She kept the line about how science changed her life.

Lesly mostly stopped going to the robot builds in the days before the competition. She had grades to work on and Kevin to mind. At her mother’s urging, she had universities to tour — she’s been accepted into two in North Texas but may still spend a year at the community college so she can help watch her brother.

Her team changed the robot’s design at the last minute. It turned out an awkward thing with Frisbees for claws and an arm that fell off on the last day of the contest. Round after round, it was slammed across the arena by creations of precisely arced metal built in cities Lesly had not seen.

She arrived late to the convention center, carrying her brother on her shoulders through the cavernous hall. She thought she’d get to join her team in the arena for the final match, but Kevin wasn’t allowed.

So Lesly found a place on the sidelines and eyed the machine: the metal she’d measured and wires she’d fastened.

The horn blew and the robots jerked to life. There was no way hers could win now, but that hardly meant she’d lose. As boys screamed in the bleachers, Lesly leaned over Kevin and told him how the game was played.

——

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

Eds: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News.

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