Mapping A Broader Appeal

Technology helps expand horizons for a group of Hispanic girls in Carson City, Nev.

by / March 3, 2001
When Marcella* walked into Anita Brooks AutoCAD class, she presented a challenge. An immigrant from Latin America, Marcella knew limited English. Brooks was faced with trying to help the newcomer understand the language and the technology while simultaneously meeting the needs of 27 other students.

In the six years Brooks taught AutoCAD as an elective for juniors and seniors at Nevadas Carson High School, only two Hispanic girls had taken the class. This was due in part to language difficulties and traditional cultural mores, which proscribe a womans role in society. Newly arrived immigrant families of Hispanic origin may discourage education for their daughters beyond what is needed to marry and raise children. Hispanic girls taking science, math or technology classes can face parental disapproval as well as ridicule from boys of the same cultural background.

"Going out and being independent is not what these girls are encouraged to do," observed Carson High Dean Chris Grischott. "Getting them to complete school is difficult enough because they are often needed at home to do child care."

But Marcella was not only determined, she was bright, gifted in math and science and had done well in the freshman computer literacy course required of all high school graduates in Nevada. Still, she needed a lot of help in AutoCAD, mainly because of language limitations. "Normally, I push my students until they want to succeed," Brooks said, "but this one needed an inordinate amount of help. Without an aide, it just wasnt possible to give her all the help she was asking for without short changing the other students."

A Challenging Proposal

At the end of the school year, Brooks reflected on her frustration at having tried to balance the needs of one student with those of the rest of the class. Although Marcella had been successful, Brooks wanted to find a way to provide more time for each student. The plan she came up with encouraged these girls to explore the science and technology classes that werent required and gain the self-confidence they needed to progress in other academic and social areas.

Through the National Science Foundation, Brooks secured a $50,000 experimental grant designed to encourage girls to develop careers in science, math, engineering and technology. The grant included funds for a bilingual aide, a GIS class to be held concurrently in a shared lab with a 7 a.m. AutoCAD class and transportation to the class. The transportation funds would enable the girls to travel to and from a business or government office that would allow them to assist in GIS or AutoCAD operations. "The participating agencies would mentor the girls on the technology, as well as on the importance of punctuality, appropriate dress in business and relating to others in the work force," Brooks said. "We would pay the girls $6 an hour to participate."

The grant also provided funds for English Language Learning and Improvement Service (ELLIS) software, which was a major factor in helping the girls improve their English.

Since a bilingual aide was not found in time for the first GIS class in the fall of 1999, Brooks went to the ESL and computer literacy teachers and recruited five girls, a mix of juniors and seniors, all with good English reading skills, and taught the class alone. "We started with Getting to Know ArcView, and the students helped by doing peer tutoring and mentoring each other," Brooks said.

Although the girls were successful, Brooks needed an aide if the class was to be any larger.

The New Team

Before the end of the semester, the school located Liz Gutierrez, a 22-year-old bilingual aide who was computer literate and who agreed to learn GIS along with the students. After training with Brooks for a few weeks, Gutierrez first task was to see how many girls she could interest in taking GIS for the spring semester. She started having lunch with the girls and sitting in on their ESL classes and telling them what she knew of GIS and the prospects for women in computer technology. She also went to the homes of the girls interested in taking the class and talked with their fathers. Brooks wanted eight to 10 girls for the class. Gutierrez brought in 25, all originally from Mexico and Central and South America, and relatively new in the United States.

Although the girls GIS class was held concurrently with a coed AutoCAD class in an adjoining lab, there was enough physical distance between the two to give them an opportunity to take their first steps into technology without the fear of competing against boys. "Getting these girls into math and science is one thing," Grischott said, "but keeping them in these courses when theyre competing against boys is very difficult. For these girls, that competition can be defeating. We were dealing with more than just a boy/girl issue here. Starting them off in a class by themselves gave them the chance to gain the confidence and experience they needed. They worked as a group and pulled each other along. Now they are saying, We can compete."

The first hurdle Brooks faced was trying to get girls who knew some English to speak in class. It just wasnt happening. Other teachers said they were not speaking English in their classes either. "The girls were afraid of making mistakes," Brooks said, "particularly in front of Hispanic boys."

But because there were no boys in the GIS class, Brooks thought she could set an example for the girls. "I made a deal with them that if I did a 10-minute lecture in my limited Spanish, they would give four class presentations using progressively more English in each one."

It worked; the girls loosened up, and both teacher and students learned more of each others language. From then on, learning moved ahead in both English and Spanish, with the aide doing most of the translating.

The girls started with ArcVoyager, a schools and libraries companion to ArcView, then went directly into analysis using the lessons Brooks downloaded from the ESRI Web site. Rather than have the material translated into Spanish, the girls wanted it all in English. They asked for translation only of concepts they did not understand.

Parental Opposition

As the girls learned more about the technology, they began staying after school to spend more time working with it. "That brought up some real problems," Brooks said. "Parents, particularly the fathers, werent comfortable with that. They were not used to seeing girls in technology, let alone being assertive about wanting to study it.

"We talked to the parents on the phone about the girls staying late," Brooks said, "but some couldnt understand why their daughters wanted to stay after school. Others suspected their daughters were not where they were supposed to be."

When it was clear that explanations were not working, Brooks decided the message might carry more weight if it came from an official whom the fathers saw as holding the highest position of respect -- the principal.

With the help of the administration, she arranged an evening reception given by the principal and attended by Yolanda Garcia, assistant to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the superintendent of schools, the students and their parents. While a girl from Brooks GIS class translated for the parents, the principal presented the girls with certificates and congratulated them on their progress and achievement. He spoke about the technology the girls were studying, its growing importance in business and industry worldwide and the need for more women in technology, engineering, math and science.

"The neatest part of that presentation was seeing how proud the parents were when they saw what their kids were doing," said Grischott.

Dealing with Change

Despite parental acceptance and success in the first year, Grischott said changes in 2001 would probably produce different results. Anita Brooks has moved on to the University of Nevada, Reno, to complete an advanced degree in geography. Also, grant funding will not be available for the program, and the demographics of the GIS class now include a few boys. Grischott added that without the grant to pay for a bilingual aide -- someone who also goes out and recruits students beforehand and talks with the parents -- it might be difficult to repeat the successes of the year before. "Recruitment and parent contact were a big part of all that." However, Grischott did point out that many of the girls who took the GIS class are now taking an AutoCAD class mostly made up of Hispanic girls.

"The grant Anita got enabled us to focus on the Hispanic girls in particular and make a change; it opened doors [and] made it possible for the girls to reach out and see what else is there. I doubt if an English or history class would have had the same effect. After they went through that class, I saw those kids checking out what else was there, looking into other areas of study. Before, they didnt know what else they could reach for; this isnt necessarily a cultural thing, it happens across cultures. Unless parents and communities encourage exploration in different areas of study, the kids may not know what is available to them until long after they have left school."

For more information on Carson Highs GIS program, e-mail Dean Chris Grischott.

* Last names withheld due to age.