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Agui Carter Turns Lens on Latina Girls and STEM with "SciGirls"

Assistant Professor María Agui Carter, center, with cast members and crew from “Digital Dance,” an episode of SciGirls that Agui Carter directed. 

Visual and Media Arts Assistant Professor María Agui Carter has spent her career telling the stories of women and Latino communities throughout history. Her film Rebel, about a Latina spy and soldier of the American Civil War, won an Erik Barnouw Honorable Mention Award for Best Historical Film and a Gutsy Gals Film Award. She’s made documentaries about female reporters during World War II (No Job for a Woman) and 1920s jazz (The Devil’s Music).

Now Agui Carter, writer/director and founder of Iguana Films LLC, is telling the stories of Latina girls and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education, directing one episode and acting as an advisor on PBS Kids’ SciGirls.

Each episode, SciGirls follows a group of teenage girls who are using STEM to solve a problem or create something new. This year, the show’s fourth season, focuses on girls in Latina communities. Much of the series is in Spanish with English subtitles, and many of the scientists and engineers they visit and learn from are also Latina.

Emerson College Today asked Agui Carter about her work on SciGirls.


ECT: How did you become involved with the show?

MAC: I was asked by Twin Cities Public Television, which has done three seasons of SciGirls, if I would be interested in producing for their new series that would focus on Latina and girls of color for their upcoming season. They were in development and I agreed to be on the team. My first year teaching at Emerson, we heard we had been awarded millions by the National Science Foundation for this very ambitious project! Not only did we do a PBS broadcast series, we also added a series of role model videos of inspiring Latina women in science. We worked with over a hundred science, educational, and community advisors to do the series, plus created extensive educational outreach and community partnerships, games, animation, transmedia projects. It’s a dream project for anyone who cares about inclusivity and the future of girls in science and tech.


ECT: What did your episode focus on?

MAC: I wanted to focus specifically on girls coding and working with technology, and also mixing that with artistry. I truly believe in adding “art” to STEM, hence STEAM. In the opening episode, “Digital Dance,” four girls aged 14-16 are coding electric panels that create colored light patterns on dancers’ costumes, programming robots to dance with the performers, and creating original animations to project behind the dancers. There is a lot of coordination, from working with the dancers’ choreography to bringing together all the elements in a stage show presented publicly at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. It was a very ambitious project with many moving pieces. Many things went smoothly, and some went spectacularly wrong. In rehearsal, one girl’s hair even caught fire due to an electrical short circuit on her hair piece!

By the evening before the performance, several of the costume lights were disconnecting and the dancers kept inadvertently kicking the robotic balls off the stage. The girls were stressed and weren’t sure if they could get everything working in time for the performance that was already scheduled and announced for the next day.

The scientific process often includes failed experimentation and then redirection and new approaches. They believed in themselves and didn’t turn on one another. Together, they worked through all the problems just in time! In the end, they saw that they could face obstacles and overcome them, and they saw they could use careful reasoning and experimentation to work out difficult scientific challenges. They were intensely proud of themselves, and afterwards talked about wanting to continue to pursue this field.


ECT: Is this your first foray into children’s television? If so, did you do anything differently than you would do for adult programming?

MAC: I’ve done history films and hard-hitting journalistic films, studio productions, and music and art films, but this is my first PBS Kids series. It’s intended specifically for tween girls, and I wanted to make sure the pace was quicker and catchier – and fun. I didn’t need to simplify any of the concepts – tween girls are a sophisticated audience – but I wanted to make sure that the science was understandable, exciting, and relatable. I spent extra time connecting with the girls who were our subjects, as well as meeting with their parents and answering a lot of questions about how everything would work so there was enough trust that they could be intimate and vulnerable and authentic in their struggles as well as their triumphs. I made sure that our shoots were dynamic and action-filled, and we went on outings to explore their scientific concepts in cool locations, even visiting a maker’s studio with them to see how professionals were also tackling some of the projects they were thinking about.


ECT: You’re also an advisor on the show. Tell us about that.

MAC: I’m an experienced producer so I collaborated on that level for my show, but for the entire series I also reviewed the themes of the series, the approaches, the outreach and engagement, how they would balance ethnic, racial, and cultural representation in the characters and the storylines presenting these stories about Latina girls and the Latino communities. We were a diverse team, not all Latino, and so it was extremely important to bring authentic portrayals of Latinos on screen.  We all wanted to stay away from tired stereotypes and to present Latino communities in all their diverse glory as we made stories about Latinas daring to tackle STEAM fields and succeeding! The biggest challenge was that most of our crew did not speak Spanish, so I had to produce, direct, and translate in two languages the entire time.


ECT: Were you interested in science or STEM fields as a girl?

MAC: I did not have a strong science education as a girl, and I think in the past, our schools have failed our girls, especially our girls of color, with low expectations and without nurturing girls in STEM fields. I wish I had. I loved biology, but did not have good physics instructors or math teachers.

I am a self-taught science and tech appreciator. I’ve run my own film company for years and was my own IT department, learning to edit on my own so that I could cut my own fundraising trailers and then supervise my editors, becoming my own tech supervisor to deliver complex films for broadcast and distribution. I’ve taught myself new software for years so that I’m a good producer. I work in large teams, with professional editors and cameramen and graphic artists and animators and so on, but I educate myself enough to supervise all the tech on my teams.

Now I’m making a new film about a teen girl web coder who creates an app, and we’ll actually be creating that app and a transmedia project to accompany the film. It’s also a film that deals with climate change and the looming extinction of the monarch butterfly and ecological devastation. Writing scripts and directing and producing films always takes me into new worlds, new stories, and I literally become immersed and fascinated with each new subject. Films allow me to delve deeply into so many new worlds and discover their magic.

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