K-State doctorate student works to introduce Latino families to STEM careers

AJ Dome, The Manhattan Mercury, Kan.
·6 min read

Mar. 12—Priscila Guzman says she wants Latino students to realize and understand their full potential.

"If you don't see someone that looks like you do something, in your mind it's just impossible," Guzman said. "Once you see someone like you doing that thing, then you see yourself doing it."

Guzman, who hails from a community called Florida — "the smallest town in Puerto Rico" — is a doctorate student in the middle of her fifth year researching microbial interactions through the biology department at Kansas State University. She said most of the Latino families she interacts with through her outreach program are lower to middle class and tend to hold more blue-collar jobs rather than science or technology jobs.

"The kids see me, and they're like, 'You're a girl, you're a scientist, you're a Latina,'" Guzman said. "And I'm like, 'Yeah, you can be whatever you want.'"

Guzman's efforts to introduce Latino children to the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics has led to her active role as a science mentor for the Verde Clovers 4H Club of Riley County. The club focuses on the development and learning of youth from Latino families locally.

Last week, she donated 50 science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experiment kits for those children to take home.

"We're having virtual meetings (with these kids), but we still want them to be engaged," Guzman said. "We still want them to learn, and to give them something fun to do."

The take-home experiments consist of a seed growing kit with instructions and ingredients for growing a small lavender plant to give students a hands-on approach to learn biology and botany. The kit also includes Styrofoam cups full of different sized marshmallows, tape, a small square of cardboard, and a few bendy straws. Guzman said some of the latter items will be used to build a lunar landing vehicle: the larger marshmallows are the shock absorbers, while the smaller ones serve as the astronauts. One of the cups acts as the main body of the lunar lander, and Guzman said the main goal is for the 'astronauts' to not leave the cup.

"This is more thinking about what goes into building something, what goes into engineering," Guzman said.

Another foam cup equipped with a ping-pong ball makes up the basis of a Rube Goldberg-style experiment, where students are tasked with building a device to make the ball go into the cup using other household items. Guzman said kids in the Verde Clovers club are given five minutes to think about how they want to build their device, and another 15 minutes to create it.

"Now every month we're going to go over a different activity, we're going to explain what's happening," Guzman said. "When we are in person, we have so much fun."

Guzman's work to bring Latin representation to STEM is extensive. She is a volunteer and mentor for the K-State Office for the Advancement of Women in Science and Engineering, a science communication fellow for the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, and a member of the Kansas Science Communication Initiative. She is also a mentor for female Hispanic students through independent research projects in her laboratory. She said she works with a lot of children who will be first-generation college students.

"These are things they haven't been exposed to, things like science or activities like these (STEM kits)," Guzman said. "They get really excited; it's about community for them."

Through external funding provided by the STEM Advocacy Institute, Guzman developed the STEM Latinx outreach program, which allows her to teach and hold informal lectures for students, as well as provide the take-home experiment kits. (Latinx is a new term used to refer Latinos and Latinas).

"The whole goal is to bring some role models to them, but also to increase their aspirations," Guzman said.

Guzman said in her conversations with the children she works with, she would ask them what they want to be "when they grow up." She said their responses included jobs like truck driver or construction worker; when she asked them why they would choose those jobs over being a scientist or a doctor, the kids would tell her "that's really hard" or "that costs a lot of money, you have to be super smart, we cannot do that."

"One of the main goals for me is to have them change that mindset," Guzman said. "You can aspire to be whatever you want to be, and you can do it."

Guzman said the projects are separated by age level. Elementary and middle-school-aged students receive the take-home STEM kits, while high schoolers receive career-readiness portfolios and have conversations about applying for scholarships and grants to fund their college career.

"I don't want them to struggle the way I did," Guzman said. "I want to make things as easy and accessible as I can make it for them."

In addition, Guzman teaches science classes at K-State, with 10 semesters of teaching under her belt. Her graduation date was delayed a year to May 2022, and she said she had to throw away all her experiments when the campus shut down because of the pandemic last year.

"We were out for four months, which completely killed my year," Guzman said. "For me, I have experiments that run really long; all of that was thrown away."

During those four months away from the university, Guzman said she wrote a scientific manuscript, analyzed the data from another experiment, and adapted the microbiology lab she was teaching at the time to an online setting. She said while she loves mentoring students and teaching, she is not planning in staying in academia.

"I don't know what I want to do," Guzman said. "But what I do know, is I want part of what I do to be mentoring; it can either be formal mentoring, or like Verde Clovers where I do it in my free time."

Guzman said none of what she does to help Latino students would be possible without donations.

"This is a reality thanks to those donors, and to the Manhattan Optimist Club," Guzman said. "Thanks to their donations, we were able to put together the STEM kits and also the career readiness kits."

An outdoor STEM day is being organized for students in May, and Guzman said the plan is to include several different fields within STEM and have small groups tour different parts of the K-State campus.

"We're going to get to do actual cool scientific experiments in front of them, with the lab coats and goggles and everything," Guzman said. "We are super excited about it."

Guzman said her passion for science came from one of her high school teachers who received research grants to allow students to study the diversity of life in Puerto Rico's underground cave system.

"Just doing the research, spending entire days in underground caves ... that was the spark," Guzman said. "When I got to college, I just knew I wanted to do science."