Sep 19, 2023 - Science

First Latina in space hopes video games inspire STEM interest in kids

Photo illustration of  Ellen Ochoa with abstract shapes and a photo of a rocketship.

Photo Illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Ellen Ochoa

Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to travel to space, tells Axios Latino she hopes having her life story featured in a video game can motivate more Latinos to explore a STEM career.

Driving the news: Ochoa was added last week as a character in the Minecraft Education suite, a learning version of the block-building game. Other characters include Gloria Estefan and civil rights activist Monica Ramirez.

  • Ochoa has also been featured in two recently published books about important U.S. Latino figures.

Why it matters: Around 35 million people worldwide are signed up to use Minecraft Education.

What she's saying: Ochoa, the former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, says many Latino children don't know about the opportunities in STEM fields, but that having role models, mentors and accessible hands-on activities can make a difference.

  • Students "may not have seen anybody like themselves do something that to them seems sort of incredible if not impossible," Ochoa says.
  • If they come across stories of people who have done such work in a video game, books, TV series or movie, "It can really change the whole way they think about their future and how they might want to achieve that," she says.

Background: Ochoa was always interested in science, but she says as a child she did not consider being an astronaut because she didn't see a lot of women or Hispanic scientists.

  • After getting her doctorate from Stanford University, she applied to NASA and was rejected twice. She was chosen on her third try in 1990.

She became the first Latina to go to space in 1993 when she was part of a nine-day mission aboard the Discovery space shuttle. She went on three other space flights before retiring from space operations in 2007.

  • Ochoa then became deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, and in 2013, she rose to become the first Hispanic person to be named director.
  • "We tried to do a lot of things that would help ensure that people of all different kinds of backgrounds were both being hired and getting the opportunity to develop," she says about her time as director.

Go deeper: What the hidden STEM economy reveals about diversity in the workforce

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