DIY Girls Sparking Interest In Technology

By Brenda Gazzar Daily News, Los Angeles.

After her second week in DIY Girls, Gia Curcio began thinking being an engineer could be as much fun as being a detective.

Using cardboard, copper tape, wiring and a buzzer -- along with a great deal of creativity -- the Telfair Elementary School fifth-grader and two of her classmates are now creating a homemade version of the addictive smartphone game Flappy Bird.

"It's cool because some people can't even do this," Curcio, 11, said from her classroom.

Curcio is one of about 50 girls from Telfair and Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima taking electronics and computer programming and learning how to use power tools, solder and do woodwork.

Their instructor and role model is DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Girls founder Luz Rivas, an MIT-trained engineer whose own interest in a technical career was sparked as a fifth grader at Telfair in programming classes.

Rivas started the nonprofit in 2011 to increase girls' and women's interest in technology and engineering, including making toys and other products through hands-on educational experiences.

"Our goal is that young girls here gain confidence because they know how to use tools and technology that others don't know how to use and that they wouldn't have access to at this age, especially in our community," Rivas, 40, said.

DIY Girls, which supports female students from fifth grade through high school, will be offering an inaugural summer program for 100 middle school girls in the northeast San Fernando Valley, though the location has yet to be chosen.

Next year, the nonprofit will serve two additional as-yet-unidentified elementary schools.

The vast majority of girls currently enrolled are children of immigrant parents from Mexico or Central America who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program. Some don't have access to tools or computers at home, Rivas said.

"The organization is targeting some neighborhoods that haven't had a lot of attention paid," LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan said. "There aren't a lot of those kinds of activities for anybody, but especially for young girls. It's great that she's exposing students that might not have had a chance to get this kind of experience -- real-world computer experience."

Women are underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering, with minority females making up about 1 in 10 of the country's employed scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation.

As of 2010, Hispanic women accounted for just 2 percent of those working as scientists or engineers, compared with 51 percent for white men and 18 percent for white women.

Rivas, raised by a single mother who had immigrated from Mexico, was the first in her family to go to college. As a junior and senior at San Fernando High School, she worked about 36 hours a week in part-time jobs to help her family make ends meet. Still, she earned high enough grades to land a full ride from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, went on to become an electrical design engineer at Motorola and has worked in STEM (science, technology, education and math) education programs for the past 10 years.

"This is like coming home," Rivas said. "I really wanted to get started (at Telfair) because I have this emotional tie. This is where I got started with engineering, and it really made a difference in my life."

In Rivas' classroom on this day, one girl was cutting a PVC pipe to make a claw machine for an arcade game that could pick up toys, while another was playing a game she'd made herself with a computer-science program. A third student was demonstrating a motor-driven device that moved along ceiling-high cables, which her teacher noted some kids have used to pass notes back and forth.

"I said, 'OK, that's the only time you'll be able to pass a note in school because you made a device that does it, and they were laughing,' " Rivas recalled.

Telfair fifth-grader Sarah Sanchez dreams of becoming an engineer so she can continue to create her own board games and perhaps mobile apps one day. She enjoys being a DIY Girl, she said, because "there's not that much rules. You don't have to use instructions, and you can use your own stuff to create your own game."

The DIY Girls will be showcasing their end-of-year projects at 4 p.m. on May 28 in the multipurpose room at Telfair Elementary School, 10975 Telfair Ave., Pacoima.

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