Harlandale ISD students work on computers during a S.T.E.M. workshop in 2015.
Harlandale ISD students work on computers during a S.T.E.M. workshop in 2015. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Thousands of San Antonio-area students learned to maneuver rockets, program Raspberry Pi and interact with robots during the Sixth Annual CORE4 STEM EXPO’s Latina Day on Tuesday morning.

Latina Day (and Latino Day on Nov.18 for boys) introduced some of the city’s best STEM-related opportunities and programs to more than 1,700 students from low-income and charter schools. The day-long events are part of local STEM Week programming.

Keynote speakers like Desiree LeBoeuf, the account manager for Xenex Germ-Zapping Robots encouraged the girls in the audience to look past the limitations of the previous generations. LeBouef pursued her passion for science while serving in the U.S. Air Force. She became the first person in her family to graduate from college, and went on to earn her master’s degree before working at Xenex.

Account Manager of Xenex Disinfection Services Desiree LeBoeuf shows off Ripley, a robot used to disinfect hospital rooms. Photo by Scott Ball.
Account Manager of Xenex Disinfection Services Desiree LeBoeuf shows off Ripley, a robot used to disinfect hospital rooms. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It wasn’t expected for a girl on the Southside,”said LeBouef, a graduate of McCullough High School. “For me, it was the biggest accomplishment.”

An extensive STEM education led to her role in the development of the Xenex robot, which uses UV ray technology to kill harmful bacteria, making rooms safer for patients, visitors, and hospital staff. Xenex can be found in nearly 300 hospitals throughout the world.

“Coming from a family that isn’t really educated, that finished high school and then started working somewhere, the push for college isn’t really there, but it needs to be, “LeBouef added.

According to LeBouef, there are nearly 100 employees currently working at her Xenex office, but only two of those employees are Latina.

“We’re just so underrepresented and I think maybe it’s coming from the generation before us,” she added. “We really need to change that mindset to if you want the better things in life, the greater things in life, it starts with getting an education and getting an education in STEM.”

Carpe Diem Westwood Freshmen Brittney Montelongo and Joika Estrada expressed an interest in pursuing science-related careers, but were disappointed in the outside job expectations for Latinas.

“There’s a lot of stereotyping still,” the girls said in unison.

“We can do more than just work at a store and sell clothes,” Montelongo added. “Girls are actually interested in things that men have been put to do – things like science and engineering. I think girls should be more involved in that kind of environment and exposed to that.”

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Penelope Pongpiachan, an eighth-grader at Leal Middle School, named math as her favorite subject and said that she hoped to use her skills for coding.

“Right now I’m learning about (coding) and it’s pretty cool,” Pongpiachan said. “It’s complicated, but these classes are so interesting. I think it would help me with jobs in graphic design.”

Pongpiachan joined other student groups touring the Expo, stopping by sponsor booths including Girls Inc., Tesoro and CPS Energy. Here students were offered even more information about STEM skills and leadership qualities needed to succeed in San Antonio’s growing STEM job sector.

Toyota offered several interactive and informational booths for students, including a booth dedicated to the Toyota Advanced Manufacturing Technician Program (AMT), a two-year program that includes an Associate’s degree.

AMT Intern Selena Flores said she always enjoyed STEM classes and projects, but she wasn’t sure how use those skills until she discovered the Toyota program her senior year at Harmony High School. She was offered a spot as an AMT intern after her graduation in 2014, and plans to graduate with an associate’s degree in May 2016.

Team Texas Toyota volunteer Selena Flores talks with reporter Lea Thompson during the CORE4 STEM Expo. Photo by Scott Ball.
Team Texas Toyota volunteer Selena Flores. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I kind of stumbled into these fields, which is really unfortunate, because I could have these opportunities (earlier) if I had known,” Flores said. “I think conferences like these are great because it shows you what’s out there.”

The intern position has already taught Flores how to weld, drill press and show up for work on time. A permanent position with Toyota is not guaranteed, but Flores hopes to continue growing with the company. Her growing skill set will make her valuable to employers throughout the state.

Flores said she hopes that other students will either be inspired by her story or see her as potential colleague in the future. “The guys at Toyota always say, ‘Wow, you must really want to be here,’ and I always say ‘Yes, I want to learn.’”

*Top image: Harlandale ISD students work on computers provided by Toyota.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.