Rochelle Barajas Leads Girls in the Engineering Field with the Femineers Program
By Melissa Mendonca
It's a Girl Thing
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Eric Leslie
ONE NEVER KNOWS what will be found in Rochelle Barajas’ Red Bluff High School classroom on any given Wednesday afternoon. One of her students may be programming a robotic fox to shake like he’s mad upon your approach, eyes turning red at your forward motion. A water feature may start up with an ocean sound.
There may be laughter and excitement, or it may be quiet with an air of concentration. It’s all music to the ears of Barajas, who advises the school’s Femineers program. “Hey, I finally get to do this,” she says. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. I average about 18 girls every Wednesday afternoon.”
Barajas graduated Red Bluff High herself in 1988 and has been teaching there for 19 years. She describes herself as a social butterfly who has been hustling to bring resources to her classroom and students.
Founded in 2013 at Cal Poly, Pomona’s
College of Engineering, the Femineers program encourages women in the fields of
science, technology, engineering and math through project-based learning and
female role models. It has affiliate programs at the University of Iowa, Iowa
City and San Diego State University, where Barajas became a Certified Femineers
Trainer. She is currently the furthest north in California, though she is
hoping that will change if Chico State University becomes an affiliate campus.
While Barajas says, “I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work on computers or networking,” she’s very clear that this isn’t the case for most girls. Of a class of 30 students in any industrial arts class at the high school, only two will be female. “We actually had a class that had four girls in it and we got excited,” she laughs. Of the department’s 11 faculty, she is the only female.
“I just want to be a role model for them,” Barajas says of her students. “They see a female teacher teaching this and they see that I’m the only female in my department.” While it’s been a concerted effort to attract female students to industrial arts classes and the Femineers program, the results have been profound. “They’re very detailed, meticulous,” Barajas says of her female students. “They want to see it done right.” In May, two van loads of Femineers traveled to San Diego State for a Femineers Summit.
These opportunities are slowly encouraging female students to take risks associated with enrollment in classes traditionally dominated by their male peers. “This builds their confidence,” says Barajas. “If girls are encouraged and given the opportunity and the guidance, then the skills come out. They blossom.”
“When I went to school I was the only girl in my class and I had to compete with the boys,” she adds. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps you on your A game.” Still, she knows how rewarding her own trajectory has been in the field and she’d love to see more females have the opportunity. “Chico State has a great megatronics program and I would love to see my girls go to it.”
San Diego State has fostered the Red Bluff High School Femineers program not only by training Barajas, but by providing what she refers to as “easily $10,000 worth of equipment.” The classroom is now stocked with starter tool kits and hummingbird circuit boards which can be coded to turn motors and lights, among other things. In all of her students’ projects, Barajas says, “I encourage them to recycle, to not buy anything.”
She describes some of the Femineers projects as “arts and crafts with a technology twist.” A popular theme is wearable technology where clothes are sewn with conductive thread, bright neopixels and microcontrollers so they light up.
Just as Barajas is mentoring her students in the field, so too are they serving as role models. Femineers are often invited to after-school activities in the county and had a booth at the Museum of Awe at the Tehama County Department of Education. “The girls ran the show,” says Barajas. “Word’s getting out.”
While it’s too soon to tell what the outcome will be of the Femineers program, Barajas is encouraged that some of her former students have enrolled in college engineering programs. “I think it’s sparking,” she says. “It’s getting the wheels turning.”•