Waving Costa Rican and U.S. flags, girls studying science and technology welcomed the second lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, on Sunday as she kicked off the first stop in her Central and South American tour.
“Bienvenida a Costa Rica!” the students cheered.
Biden will spend the week-long trip meeting with officials, teachers, students and private sector leaders to promote equal opportunities for boys and girls to study science and engineering. She also hopes to raise awareness about gender-based violence.
Besides Costa Rica, Biden has stops planned in Peru, Argentina and Panama.
At Sunday’s event at the National Technical University (Universidad Técnica Nacional) in Alajuela, students from around the Central Valley explained their science projects to Biden. “So you’re going to be the millionaires!” she laughed after speaking with two student scientists.
The projects on display ranged from a pressure-sensitive prosthesis to a natural alternative to antibacterial hand wash. Stefhanie Loaiza and Erika Brenes, both 16-year-old students from Cartago, developed the hand wash, which kills E. Coli and Salmonella, using the common yellow-flowering cassia reticulata plant.
“Some people think that science is just for men,” Loaiza told The Tico Times. But among students at her school, she said, there are just as many girls as boys interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
Both Brenes and Loaiza plan to study microbiology when they graduate high school.
Encouraging students like Brenes and Loaiza was the focus of Biden’s visit. On June 14, she and Costa Rica’s first lady Mercedes Peña Domingo met in Paris at the launch of the UNESCO TeachHer initiative. The U.S.-led program aims to encourage girls and women to study STEM fields.
Costa Rica will be the first country in Central America to host the pilot program, which uses after-school programs and teacher training to close the gap between boys and girls in STEM.
“Costa Rica is a leader in Latin America in ensuring that women and girls have access to a quality education and equal opportunities,” Biden told the audience, thanking Peña for her efforts in promoting the issue.
“It’s going to take all of us — educators and community leaders, women and men, boys and girls — to make progress for gender equality,” Biden said.
Speaking on Father’s Day, Biden emphasized the role that fathers have in encouraging their daughters to pursue whatever field interests them.
After the event at the National Technical University, the second lady met with students at Hogar Siembra, a shelter and school for neglected and abused girls.
There, academic director María José Rivera led Biden on a tour of the campus, where more than 30 girls receive job-focused training in English, entrepreneurship, computer science, cooking and cosmetology, among other fields. Afterwards, Biden met privately with a group of the girls.
Hogar Siembra is a public-private partnership between the Costa Rican Child Welfare Office and Fundación Yamuni, with support from a Central American Regional Security Initiative grant awarded by the U.S. Embassy in San José.
Biden left Costa Rica Sunday afternoon to continue her trip to Peru.