By Avi Selk
The Dallas Morning News.
Men carved 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–a lottery high school in Irving ISD. Most of them had never left Texas before, and even visiting a university was a rarity in their family lines.
Their teachers had sent them to the mining camp, as they would to many other places in the coming year, because they believed the girls were smart beyond their circumstances. And because they believed that science has limped along too long deprived of an entire gender.
The girls were scientists already. Rubi Garcia had smashed her Barbie radio at age 7, then repaired it and kept repairing things.
Lesly Hernandez was the household electrician to her mother and little brother. Half a year later, she would call herself “the girl who helped wire the robot.”
Deep in the mine, Lesly stared up at copper ore. She had expected it to be brown, but it glittered blue. To her, the metal looked like stars.—-Lesly’s grandparents butcher their own meat in Mexico. Her mother works fast food 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 the hogs beneath her grandfather’s blade. Other girls played with dolls; Lesly wondered how pigs were put together.
Years later in Texas, her mother saved up for a microscope kit and Lesly lost herself in the layers of an onion. Her teenage phases were biology, biotechnology and now electrical engineering with a specialty in robotics. Her friends are 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 the elementary school where her brother shoots towards her from the dismissal line like a magnet to its pole.
Asked how she spends her free time, Lesly asked 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. They don’t look like a science club because they’re really a support group. Taking some of the most difficult courses available, the girls on Singley’s science floor are scattered and outnumbered–as they are in science fields across the world.
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.
But more often, she spends her evenings in a classroom down the hall, working on the robot.
—-By February, it was little more than an aluminum frame and a nascent brain of splayed wires. In just six weeks, Lesly’s team had to make it five feet tall, remote controlled, invincible–able to pass a ball to other robots and survive an arena full of rivals.
One of three girls among a dozen boys in the room, Lesly prodded the machine, testing its balance, adjusting its wheels. By the time she went home, she had promised to come in early on Saturday and stay late next week.
The coach was a former airman named Tige Brown who ran his team hard. Lesly didn’t know it, but he would go home and brag about her to his wife. And he’d worry a little.
Lesly can take her pick of universities, but Brown was trying to sway her away from going to the local community college instead so she could keep looking after Kevin.
—-There’s a dynamic on Singley’s science floor: the freshman boys don’t want girls on their teams. The seniors plead for them.
It’s a start.
Assistant principal Kacy Barton helped set up the Girls of Technology in Lesly’s freshman year–the beginnings of an effort to
make Singley’s technology programs more female-friendly.
Five years ago, Barton said, the few girls on the science floor sat isolated in classrooms full of boys, strangers to girls who did the same across the hall. They would walk into labs that looked like bunkers. Often they would not return.
“Females think differently,” Barton said. “Girls don’t need foo-foo aesthetics. But they need color and labs that will appeal to them instead of walking into a cave. 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 helping legless people walk.
For Barton, it’s as much about giving women the benefit of science as it is about giving science the benefit of women. Sometimes she sees a group of boys come up with a complex plan to solve a task. “‘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.'”
—-Excluded from the sciences for centuries, women have caught up to men in some fields over the last few decades. But they’re still greatly outnumbered in engineering and the physical sciences. In 2008, the U.S. government counted nearly one million computer and electrical engineers–Lesly’s specialty. Less than 1 percent were Hispanic women.
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 a teacher 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.
“You might as well eliminate the English,” the teacher said.
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.
—-In the end, the robot was an awkward thing with Frisbees for claws and an arm that fell off halfway through the competition.
Round after round, it was slammed across the arena by beheomths of precisely arced metal built in states and countries Lesly had not seen.
She had all but stopped going to the robot builds in the final days. Her mother was working late more. She had Kevin to look out for. Universities to tour.
Her team changed the robot’s design at the last minute. They ran out of time.
“Things just happened,” Lesly said.
She arrived late to the convention center, carrying Kevin on her shoulders through the crowd. The robot had already sank far down in the rankings. She thought she’d get to join her team in the arena for the final match, but her brother wasn’t allowed.
So Lesly found a place on the sidelines and eyed the creation whose 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