HESTEC Turns Ten

The Rio Grande Valley has a population of over 1.3 million, and 93 percent of the residents are Hispanic. But in the U.S. and in Texas, the Valley has been more or less ignored and maybe even neglected—until recently. In October, the Vista Summit took place, bringing together the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Greater Texas Foundation to listen to mothers and alumni of the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville. Finally, the Valley and its residents are being noticed.

The Vista Summit may never have happened if it were not for HESTEC—the Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Program. Ten years ago, UT Pan American, with the help and vision of Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, began an experiment—bring middle and high school students to campus to introduce them to exciting careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with the theory that once inspired, Latino students would successfully pursue STEM college degrees. The vehicle for that introduction was HESTEC, a weeklong celebration of STEM careers that attracts companies, federal agencies, and foundations to the Valley to encourage our children, from early on, to dream of high paying jobs in science and engineering.

Back in 2002, UT Pan Am was just beginning to grow its relatively new College of Engineering and Science. Today, we have split that college into two colleges, and we have over 1,700 students majoring in engineering alone. While many universities were looking overseas for engineering students, we invested in the abundance of young talent all around us. Through HESTEC, we brought inspiring speakers and hands-on science activities to thousands of middle and high school students, most of whom had never thought of being a scientist or an engineer. When we saw their faces light up—as they spoke with an astronaut, visited a laboratory, or took a ride in a flight simulator—that is when we knew we were on to something great.

After 10 years, we have many HESTEC success stories to share, but I was truly moved by the stories of Carlos Ramos and Veronica Trevino. Carlos Ramos is a third-year medical student who recently completed a summer internship at NASA’s Cardiovascular Lab and whom we invited back to speak to our students this year. Carlos attended HESTEC when he was a high school senior and said, “HESTEC 2004 taught me a very important lesson. Science is fun. I chose UTPA as my undergrad in part because of HESTEC. … Supporters of HESTEC, please be assured that you help to inspire new generations of scientists. You make science and technology both fun and accessible to young people. What you do is greatly appreciated by us, students.”

Veronica Trevino also spoke at this year’s HESTEC. She will graduate next year with a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders. She attended HESTEC throughout junior high and high school and said of her experience: “Every year, my classmates and I attended (HESTEC) and were exposed to amazing people and experiences. From meeting former astronauts to creating and racing robots, we not only had fun, but we were learning about the great things we could do in the fields of engineering, science and technology. … Attending HESTEC was the absolute highlight of our academic year and we looked forward to participating in the new and exciting events that were created especially for us every last week in September.”

Our conclusion, introducing students as early as possible to STEM fields works—HESTEC works. Today, The University of Texas-Pan American has over 6,000 students in health sciences, engineering, and science; and ranks among the top in the nation for the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanics in STEM fields. We are proud of our University’s growth, and we are even more proud of our young Latino students who show us everyday, that if we provide them with opportunity, they will not only compete; they will also excel in STEM careers. And, as I said, the world is taking notice.

Dr. Robert Nelsen is the President of the University of Texas-Pan American.