STEM Sin Fronteras: A Different Initiative to Engage Latinas in Science

Edna Matta-Camacho BELatina Latinx

Blue is for boys; pink is for girls and other cultural conditioning continues to undermine the career possibilities of girls and women in Latin America and the world.

In the field of the so-called “hard sciences,” the issue is even worse.

That is why Edna Matta-Camacho, a Colombian biochemist now based at Canada’s Carleton University, decided to create a STEM training center in a remote corner of her home country, “to provide better opportunities for student, especially girls,” in the heart of Colombia.

According to a UNESCO report, only 35% of students enrolled in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses in higher education are women. Similarly, only 3% of female students in higher education choose to study in areas such as information technology and education.

The research found that there are no biological factors that distinguish between girls and boys in the learning process, but rather “it is the result of the interaction of a range of factors embedded in both the socialization and learning processes.”

“These include social, cultural, and gender norms, which influence the way girls and boys are brought up, learn and interact with parents, family, friends, teachers and the wider community, and which shape their identity, beliefs, behavior, and choices,” the report noted. 

It added that , the strategy to get more girls and women into technology education and careers –such as atomic energy and climate change, for example– requires more far-reaching “holistic and integrated responses,” especially in remote regions such as rural communities in Latin America.

As Matta-Camacho told Forbes, it was her brothers’ experience as teachers in Rovira, and their first-hand testimony of the effect of armed conflict on communities, that inspired much of her new STEM Sin Fronteras project, which seeks to stimulate girls’ and young women’s interest in pursuing science education.

The Colombian conflict began in the mid-1960s and it is a low-intensity asymmetric war between the government of Colombia, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates and guerrillas. 

“The armed conflict had generated serious instability, provoking a lasting negative impact on socio-economic development of the region, health services, education and a number of deficiencies that have left Rovira in a delicate situation of vulnerability especially for children,” Matta-Camacho said.

In this way, her project promotes learning experiences through “fun and engaging programming,” based on exploring the curiosity and identifying the skills of each student, “in a collective setting based on leadership and equity,” as her website explains.

“In our scientific activities and conferences, we seek to motivate girls to take leadership and spark their curiosity, increase their interest in STEM areas, and to contribute to eliminating the gender gap and the participation of Latinas in STEM globally,” she said.

Her educational process also focuses on environmental awareness and incorporating the rural community in efforts to combat climate change.

Similar initiatives have been emerging in other parts of the world, such as Chicas STEM in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which in collaboration with Inquiry Facilitators and the U.S. Embassy, have provided the platform for new ways to inform and stimulate the curiosity of girls in science and technology.