Latinas see chance to be stars in science


WALLA WALLA — Whitman College astronomy professor Andrea Dobson turns her eyes toward a bright light in the dimming sky. Was it a star or a planet?

“That could be Saturn,” she guessed, pointing the green beam of a pen laser toward the celestial object in the east.

The laser caught the attention of several girls accompanyin her on the Hall of Sciences rooftop observatory.

“Look how far it goes!” one girl exclaimed about the beam.

The recent Thursday night journey to peer through the college observatory’s telescopes capped a week meant to get the 20 Garrison Middle School girls thinking about science.

And that’s just the beginning.

By the end of the month-long project, part of the Garrison 3Rs program, the girls will have built and launched a weather balloon with measuring equipment and a dummy rocket with toy passengers attached. The balloon will launch in June with three cameras — one facing up, one down, and one fixed on the rocket — along with equipment that will track the voyage to the upper atmosphere.

That the girls taking part in the Garrison Space Project are all Latinas is no coincidence.

Brent Cummings, who runs the Garrison 3Rs after-school program, said the space project is a way to address the under-representation of Latinas in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. In STEM education and jobs, Hispanic women are the least represented, he said.

Almost half of Garrison’s students have Hispanic roots, and more than half of those who take part in 3Rs are Latino, Cummings said. The program is part of the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

The girls Cummings approached for the space project all got on board. He then shaped a project to include team-building, the Whitman field trips and other explorations over a month, culminating with the balloon launch.

He hopes that along the way, chords of curiosity or interest will be strummed in each girl toward ambitious futures. Careers and deep interests, he said, are shaped over time off enriching experiences.

“We’re trying to create some sort of catalyst for a future,” he said. “Research has shown that it’s experiences at a young age ... those are what serve as a catalyst.”

Students have visited the dark interior of Whitman’s planetarium, where they star-gazed, picked out constellations and observed cycles of the moon, with Dobson as guide.

She spun the stars and moon around the domed ceiling for the girls to track and observe. The girls learned that “maria” are the dark surfaces of the moon that were mistaken for seas by early astronomers, and that the line that divides the illuminated and dark part of the moon is the terminator. If you are told to set your sights straight up, you are focusing on the zenith.

Dobson also talked about the moon’s craters, and asked the girls to question what could have formed them. As Dobson talked about ancient volcanoes on the moon, she caught the girls’ attention.

“So there was lava on the moon?” one girl asked.

“There was lava on the moon,” Dobson answered.

The next day they were catching the sunset and moonrise at the Hall of Sciences observatory, where powerful telescopes beckoned them to reach for the stars.

The project, costing about $3,000, came together through community donations. The Walla Walla Chapter of the American Association of University Women donated about $1,500, and Nelson Irrigation and Columbia REA each donated about $250, Cummings said. Whitman College emerged as another strong partner, offering its Hall of Sciences facilities and instructors.

Two high school students are also helping out with the Garrison Space Project, offering themselves as mentors and educational assistants. Both girls, members of the Walla Walla High School Latino Club, expressed their own excitement about the project.

“I think it’s great actually,” said Nallely Facio, a senior at Wa-Hi. “I’m surprised how interested the girls are.”

Brenda Lopez, also a senior and president of the school’s Latino Club, said the Space Project was offering a great opportunity for the Garrison students.

“I think it’s awesome,” Lopez said. “I wish I had an experience like this when I was younger.”

The weather balloon and equipment comes through High Altitude Science, a resource for beginner space exploration projects. The gear includes the cameras and a data-tracking system that will allow the girls to follow the high-altitude balloon on its journey through the layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

The cameras will offer views of Earth from space, and the device’s memory will record key data such as altitude, wind velocity and air pressure.

Cummings said the bulk of the program costs are for the high definition cameras and memory cards. The girls will build and attach a small replica of a rocket that will travel with the balloon and carry toy passengers — the old man, boy and dog from the Pixar film “Up.”

Cummings said he was inspired after watching the “Hello Kitty in Space” video on YouTube. The video follows the launch, using high altitude science gear that a seventh-grade girl put together for her school’s science project. The video has drawn nearly a million views online.

That video helped Cummings see that reaching for space was within his own students’ grasp.

The project has already done much of that. On the roof of the Hall of Sciences, a couple of the girls shared their excitement about the project.

Andrea Romero, 14, said she’d never before look at the night sky through a telescope. She said her family did not own one.

“I wish they did,” she said, adding her parents encouraged her to take part in the science project and that it would be fun and interesting.

For Cynthia Montalvo, 14, the first few days of the program opened her eyes to resources at Whitman.

“I really like how they can project the stars and show us how everything works,” she said of the planetarium.

The girls say they are ready to challenge the statistic of few Latinas represented in STEM careers.

“I think it’s unfair sometimes,” Romero said. “I think we should have a chance at something.”

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at or 526-8317.


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