Pat McNees

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Hispanic girls learn computer-assisted design—and English
Although Carson City is Nevada’s capital, it is a rural community with a population just over 50,000, much of it poor or nearly poor. Its main industry is gaming, but in recent years many businesses with high-tech needs have relocated to this part of Nevada, where they have difficulty attracting qualified personnel.

A conversation with a student led technology teacher Anita Brooks to create a program to integrate Hispanic girls into the world of computer technology. A senior enrolled in Brooks’ computer-aided drafting class at Carson High School told Brooks that for students like her, for whom English was a second language, learning to use a computer was like learning a third language. Language problems kept the student from being able to apply concepts she understood, despite two hours of work outside the class for every hour of class work. “Sometimes she would just put her head down and cry,” said Brooks. Through the Carson City School District, Brooks proposed a small experimental project to recruit Hispanic teenage girls into the computer-aided design (CAD) programs that would prepare them for high-tech jobs.

Carson City GREATS (girls really enjoy advanced technical skills) was launched in September 1999, just as the high school opened its new High Tech Center. The director of the high school’s School-to-Careers program arranged for five local businesses to provide internships for five students each semester. Interns worked 90 hours a semester, earning either $6 an hour or half a credit for participating in the project. Girls were to be recruited from CAD courses, but because no girls had signed up for those courses, the bilingual teacher’s aide recruited students from the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Recruitment meant selling the program to the girls’ parents, many of whom believed that a woman’s place is in the home, a future that did not call for advanced computer classes. She persuaded the parents that the girls needed to study if they were to have a better life.

The girls also enrolled in the school’s AutoCAD course and were given remedial instruction in English/​Language Art and math, if needed. In addition to all their other classes, the girls were enrolled in a geographic information systems (GIS) class at 7 a.m. in the High Tech Center’s Spatial Analysis/​GIS/​CAD technology lab. All instructions and demonstrations were in English, which the aide then translated into Spanish. Lab assignments were given in English. The aide attended a two-day training session in GIS, which made her more confident and productive in the classroom.

The results of the research and education activities were startling. It was assumed that perhaps eight to ten Hispanic girls would be interested in the program, but those estimates were far surpassed. Not only did the girls learn skills that could help them land high tech jobs, but their confidence levels soared, they became more proficient in English, and during the summer they improved their math, raising their scores on state math proficiency exams. A program through which students could learn in both languages empowered the girls to learn that they had far more ability than they thought they had—which opened the door to more learning. Enrollment in high technology classes increased substantially in 2000-2001.

The girls’ comfort zone expanded and, deciding they needed a support group outside the classroom, they started a lunchtime club that would meet weekly to discuss such concerns as how to achieve their career goals without alienating their families. They invited speakers and took field trips, to expand their career horizons, but they also wanted to help Latinas who had just immigrated. For the club to be formally sanctioned on the Carson High School campus, they had to present their club’s mission and goals to the entire student council. Twenty of the girls attended the meeting, one presented their proposal, and, after asking many questions, the student council unanimously approved the club. Speaking up for themselves before students who barely knew they attended the same school was a monumental achievement for these girls, who had to articulate their desires and answer questions on the fly. They opened lines of communication with the majority population that had not existed before, and in so doing they took the first step in attaining their dreams and broke ground for many girls to come after them.

GREATS gave these girls a true sense of the possible. Before, they had been disenfranchised from learning. Now they are standing up for themselves and asking more from themselves, their counselors, their peers, and their teachers. They are signing up for classes they never would have considered before. They view college as a viable option, which it was not before. And they are advocating for each other as well as for themselves.

The project brought national recognition to the flexibility and untapped resources of GIS as a multilingual tool for teaching. Carson High School and its instructor have become information resources for other institutions interesting in instituting a similar program. The Nevada State Department of Education funded an additional year of the program through the Technology Leadership Challenge Fund. During the summer of 2000, the Carson City GIS Department was a mentoring agency for ten girls, who got field experience gathering data for use in Carson City’s geographic information system. The girls became a valuable resource for the city agency while amassing valuable workplace skills.

This account is drawn partly from a story by Teri Vance in The Nevada Appeal, February 12, 2000.

Mastering English and technology: The schedule

Week 1. No technology content was presented. To break up potential cliques and encourage the girls to be mutually supportive, the class engaged in “ice-breakers,” including a game of Human Bingo that required the girls to learn pieces of life information about each other. These lighthearted activities promoted a safety net for the girls and cemented their desire to continue with the class. After assessments in computer and English proficiency, instruction began.

Week 2. The girls learned Basic Windows and printing instructions, then took pictures of each other with digital cameras, opening images from floppy disks and printing the images out—as a way to engage their interest and get them experimenting with file navigation on the network, saving, and document printing.

Weeks 3 to 9. The girls learned analysis concepts of geographic information systems using ArcVoyager software. Some concepts almost defied translation. Gross national product (or GNP), for example, is a difficult concept even for native speakers of English. After many tears and much tenderness—with other students helping to translate— the girls experiencing discomfort agreed to remain in the class. After completing each unit, students were required to apply what they learned with a small project of their own – so the teacher could tell if they really understood what they were doing or were just reading and “parroting” what they read or saw in the lessons. During this phase the students were all highly motivated and ready to work, diligently completing all of the assignments and coming in during their breaks to get extra help from the aide.

Week 10. During the first nine weeks, some of the students showed tremendous improvement in verbal and written skills. (One student, who spoke no English when the class started, beckoned the instructor for assistance and said, “Ms. Brooks, I have confusion in my heart,” articulating the need for help and showing the courage to seek it in her own words.) But many of the girls, despite becoming more English and technology literate, still refused to speak English outside of the classroom. This concerned the staff, because on the job they would have to be able and willing to speak English. Several days were set aside to discuss the girls’ concern, and the girls admitted anxiety about making mistakes in English, concern about being laughed at in the classroom by the Hispanic boys. Not all the boys would laugh but enough did that they felt humiliated in English-only classes and preferred speaking Spanish. After long discussions about career and cultural issues, the girls were encouraged to get past prior hurts and to start practicing their English skills. To show good faith, the non-Spanish speaking teacher offered to give a ten-minute lecture in Spanish if they would agree to do three of their four GIS presentations in English.

Weeks 11-18. The girls progressed to ArcView, standard software for the GIS industry, and became responsible for relating what they had learned to a new project. They were learning skills that required they query or narrow down their data. Once they understood the new tools, they were instructed on how to create a layout, show and describe the results of their work, and present their findings. They found this graphic part of the curriculum very satisfying.

ELLIS (English language software). In addition to regular classwork, the girls were encouraged to come in during study period or on their own time to use the English language software procured with the NSF grant. ELLIS is an interactive multimedia platform with microphone and headphones. The students may tape themselves and then hear themselves speaking. Visuals show specifically where points of articulation are so students can see how they should be enunciating. The software provides regular comprehension tests and gives girls feedback on their progress. The aide is there to help with software mechanics, but the students drive their own progress. Their English skills, both written and spoken, improved markedly.

A project of
Carson City (Nevada) School District
Investigators: Valerie Dockery , Anita Brooks, Gregory Marangi
Reprinted from New Formulas for America's Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering

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