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Power of Education

Even Dr. Richard Tapia, one of America’s most distinguished mathematicians, could not predict that his idea for a Latino Leadership Institute would take off so quickly.

A professor at Rice University, Tapia is the recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Science, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers. The timing couldn’t have been better when he stood up in a room of energy executives earlier this year in Houston and boldly announced his plan to prepare Latino students, faculty and alumni for positions of leadership. The energy executives were from ExxonMobil and they immediately embraced the idea. Tapia was awarded a seed grant and the Institute was born.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and as I travel across the country, the question that I would always ask was, ‘Why are we Latinos not there?’” Tapia said. “I was always the only one at the National Science Board, the only one on the National Research Council. For years I’ve been frustrated and also concerned that we aren’t in the top levels of leadership.”

The institute will change all that by preparing Latinos to take on national leadership positions around the country. According to Tapia, all sorts of entities ranging from major corporations to academic institutions will fight to hire them.

“My whole model is to take Latinos and put them in the very finest positions in the country and then take advantage of the fact that those are the positions that the government and the nation looks to for leadership,” Tapia said. “I would like for someone to say that the product of this institute is such a desirable product that we need them as leaders of ExxonMobil, we need them as professors at Princeton, we need them as members of the National Science Board.”

Based in Dallas, ExxonMobil generously supports a broad range of educational initiatives including the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) which helps middle school and high school students to succeed in Pre-AP and AP courses in math and science, and LATINO Magazine’s NUESTRO FUTURO Conference [see p. 52], which encourages Latinos to enter the STEM fields.

“Dr. Tapia’s leadership and commitment to higher education and diversity are exemplified on his resolve to create and establish a Latino Leadership Institute,” said Nicolas Medina, Government and Public Affairs, ExxonMobil. “We are proud to support this initiative, which will play a contributing role in helping to fill up the pipeline of talented students earning their degrees in STEM fields.”

Perhaps some of the future leaders Tapia envisions will come from south Texas, where a historic oil and gas boom has injected hope for a brighter future as well as millions of dollars into the cash-strapped, sleepy towns. The area known as the Eagle Ford Shale is roughly 400 miles long and 50 miles wide, stretching from the southwest Texas-Mexico border all the way to southeast Texas. Energy companies have converged in droves to drill for natural gas trapped in a layer of shale 250 feet thick that is 65 million years old and 4,000 to 12,000 feet below the ground. It’s all made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves mixing millions of gallons of water with sand and chemicals that are injected into rock.

Marathon Oil currently has 20 rigs and four dedicated hydraulic fracturing crews in Eagle Ford. Hugo Gutierrez, Government Affairs Manager for Marathon, says the company’s presence in the area has created jobs that support the company’s operations like building infrastructure to support production growth across the area.

“Approximately $1.5 billion that we’re investing yearly in the area is being spent in communities that are predominantly Hispanic and have been historically economically challenged for years,” Gutierrez said. “Everything associated with drilling a well literally creates thousands of jobs, and every day that we drill a new well, that community benefits.”

In an effort to get to know these communities better, Marathon has organized several “open house” events with local residents. Gutierrez has attended a couple and heard first-hand from residents about the impact of the boom on their daily lives.

“The economic infusion creates opportunity for kids that are growing up in these areas and something concrete that they can set their sights on,” Gutierrez said. “Before they had to leave their homes because there were no jobs there, but now people are moving back and the people that are being raised there are actually staying there.”

Drilling in Eagle Ford will also have a long term positive impact on the communities. “All this investment is permanent going forward because these jobs are sustainable,”Gutierrez says.“This business isn’t going anywhere because we’re always going to need oil and gas.”

As a result, other energy companies are investing millions of dollars into educational programs around the state that encourage young Latinos to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Chevron supports the JASON Project, a non-profit organization that exposes middle school students to real science and exploration to excite them about careers in STEM. Students benefit from award-winning online and print curricula in the classroom, as well as live interactive events and professional development for educators.

Joni Baird, Chevron Houston Public Affairs Manager, says they first started working with the JASON Project at Southwest Schools and Spring Branch ISD, Houston-area school districts that are predominantly Latino. Last summer, a teacher and two middle school students from Spring Branch were selected to travel to the Aegean Sea on the Bob Ballard exploration ship, named after Dr. Robert Ballard, founder of the JASON Project and famous for his discovery of the Titanic shipwreck.

“The goal of all of this is to inspire the next generation of scientists,” Baird said. “We want to get children so excited that they’ll stay in school and envision a job that they can be in because they are the workforce of the future.”

Rosalinda Mercado-Garza is the principal of Southwest Schools. She says this year the school inaugurated a brand new science lab and they were able to hit the ground running by implementing lesson kits from the JASON Project. “With Chevron’s financial support, the JASON Project was able to train staff for continued professional development,” Mercado-Garza said. “This has been a really enriching experience for our students and our staff.”

GeoFORCE Texas is another program that works with school districts with large numbers of Latino students to encourage them to enter the hi-tech workforce. The program is run by the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin and focuses on high school students. Students from school districts in the southwest Texas and Houston regions, which are 85 percent and 62 percent Hispanic respectively, participate in the program.

One of the sponsors is BP. “If you look at the numbers for 2011-2012, there are over 600 kids that are touched by this program and not surprisingly close to 60 percent are Hispanic,” said Felipe Bayon, Head of Special Projects for BP. “One of the things we do is take them out of their own environment and into the field so they can see spectacular things they probably would never have been exposed to.”

Scientists and engineers from BP also volunteer their time to work with students and accompany them on field trips, which take place during the summer. Students have been able to travel to Florida, Utah, Arizona, and Oregon. “Kids from high school are being led by some of our top geoscientists,” Bayon said. “This helps to foster an understanding of engineering and more importantly motivating them.”

The program has proven to be a tremendous success, with over 60 percent of the participants actually pursuing STEM degrees. And an astounding 96 percent of the GeoFORCE Class of 2012 is heading directly to college. “People will continue to enter the oil and gas industry and the reality is that the demographics of the country are changing,” Bayon said. “We want to reflect those demographics within the company and capture the best talent regardless of where it’s coming from.”

Shell Oil is another sponsor of GeoFORCE. Michael Alvarez, Shell’s Workforce Development Initiative Manager, describes GeoFORCE as one of the premier STEM education initiatives around the country.”We need diverse talent to help us come up with energy solutions for the future,” Alvarez said. “As we build this pipeline of diverse students the whole industry will benefit because there will be more talent to recruit.”

Debra Stewart, Director of Supplier Diversity, Workforce Development and Diversity Outreach at Shell, says the company would like to hire the best engineers and scientists that reflect increasingly diverse demographics nationwide. “We became concerned about both the numbers and the diversity of students who were choosing a technical career path because this is the pool that we want to have access to for the talent we need in the long term,” she noted.

Alvarez adds that students are encouraged to pursue STEM degrees by meeting individuals that look like them. “A lot of these students that are participating are from families where the parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and now they’ll be the first to complete college,” he said. “It really helps to strengthen the family structure because they’re then viewed as role models by their younger siblings.”

That’s the power of education.