While fellow classmates are consumed with partying and having the stereotypical university experience, Flor Serna has been focused on breaking the mold. As a practiced recording engineer in her own right, Serna has recently found her place in the world of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics education) by creating her own education program called Electric Girls NOLA, which she describes as “An experiential education program focused on inspiring curiosity and confidence in young girls, using basic audio technology projects.” She came up with the idea for this program about a year ago, and is very excited to have begun classes in January at two local New Orleans primary schools. Considering her busy schedule as an honors student, combined with her new Electric Girls schedule, I was very lucky to find a bit of down time to talk with Serna about her experiences with technology, especially pertaining to audio and recording.
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Serna played piano and later taught herself to play guitar. Soon after, she started experimenting with different audio and video programs on her computer, realizing she could record and manipulate her own tracks. “I remember it as this monumental day where I figured out that I could record a video of me playing guitar, put it into Windows Movie Maker, rip the audio from the video to listen to on my iPod, and then play over it and double track it to sing a harmony or something. You could only do two tracks at a time, so you’d have to bounce those tracks and then add another track into it, so that’s what I did. I didn’t even know what recording was yet, so at the time I thought what I had done was genius!” It was this event that sparked Serna’s passion for audio technology, which led her to intern at a studio in Albuquerque where she learned about digital audio, Pro Tools, how to set up mics, etc., which eventually brought her to New Orleans in 2011 to study Music Industries Technology with a Computer Science minor at Loyola University. Her experiences working as one of the only females in the campus recording studio motivated her to develop Electric Girls and become an advocate and role model for young women. “A big turning point for me was one day when me and some of the guys from the studio were doing this career day session with some high school students. The plan was to teach them how to record a song and put it to a music video. When we walked into the studio, all of the students kept asking me for my number or if I was the artist they would be recording, but they didn’t ask my male counterparts the same questions.”
Although the studio could be overwhelming, Serna shared that she started learning everything she could: “I just started training and got more involved, even though it was intimidating. At some point you just have to jump in and say ‘Well, this is what I’m interested in and I only have so many years left here.’ If you just put your fear aside you can do it! This past semester I did a lot of training in the studio and I saw a lot of girls who I pushed to come back and help out with sessions.” Along with spending a lot of time in the studio, she found a deeper passion for fixing and creating her own electronics. “It started when my professor taught me how to solder. Once I learned, we would make monthly repairs in the recording studios, doing things such as repairing microphone XLR cables. It was hard, but really fun, and I got addicted to soldering right when that happened.”
we would make monthly repairs in the recording studios, doing things such as repairing microphone XLR cables. It was hard, but really fun, and I got addicted to soldering
The first lesson in the Electric Girls 10 to 12 week curriculum is an introduction to digital audio, where the girls use Max, a visual programming language for music and multimedia, to create a max patch with sliders that change the frequency, amplitude, and sample rate of a song. Serna introduces the lesson in her course plan by asking, “What is audio?” Students will be introduced to the idea of digital audio and digital audio manipulation. Using a microphone and a digital audio workstation such as Pro Tools, Logic, Live, or Audacity, students will record bits of audio and manipulate them using simple and graphically understandable Max MSP plug-ins. These audio bits will be recorded and can be sent to the parents of the students, or given to students directly. The purpose of this first lesson is for students to realize the ease of audio manipulation and to garner interest in Electric Girls. The instructor also discusses what it means to be an Electric Girl: “A confident, curious, and capable individual.” Serna also has the girls use a Makey Makey, or arduino device, to control a virtual keyboard to compose an improvised musical piece to be performed later. This lesson teaches the concepts of circuitry and signal flow. The Electric Girls program also utilizes technology such as Drawdio—a simple electronic synthesizer attached to a pencil that uses the conductive properties of graphite to produce sound—Snap Circuit Jr.s (like Legos for circuit building), audio recording software such as Pro Tools, and more.
What is truly impressive about this program is that Serna has de-mystified these otherwise intimidating concepts in a fun way. Her students are utilizing what they have learned and are developing an enthusiasm for audio technology. “I think it’s important to make everyone (not only women, but especially women) confident, and let them know that they can manipulate the world around them rather than be controlled by it. I think for technology, that’s really important, because once you realize that you can control your world with the technologies in front of you, then you can feel really empowered and do a lot more than play games on your iPhone.”
For the time being, Electric Girls is going to stay local due to Serna’s busy schedule, but she plans to expand it in the future and hopes to have her own space where girls can come after school and on weekends. Her more immediate plans include registering Electric Girls to form a non-profit organization, soliciting funding through a Kickstarter campaign, and showing off the Electric Girls to the public at a maker fair in March.
Serna is nothing short of a DIY electronics princess, and has set such a great example for girls and women of all ages. She has taken her passion and run with it (with the help of grants and a few generous donations). As for her other projects and plans, she wants to continue creating and innovating DIY electronics by fusing music, electronics, and programming. “I want to build these max patches for my friend who plays saxophone, so she can play sax and at the same time have crazy homemade effects. Instead of it being through a guitar pedal it can be on a computer.” As for recording engineering, she does not have plans to work in a traditional recording studio, although she still wants to help out and record. Serna ended our time together by telling me, “Even though I don’t have a traditionally STEAM occupation because I’m not a freaking astrophysicist or an astronaut, I’m still engaged in a field that is minority female. I think everyone has something to learn from everyone else, and we’re all kind of self taught in a way. We all just learn our own techniques. It’s an evolving type of thing.”