HESTEC Motivates Hispanic Youth

Forbes ranked The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) as the nation’s 32nd best public college in its 2009 survey. UTPA is located in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, 20 minutes from the border of Mexico and our student population is 87% Hispanic. UTPA awards the 2nd most bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students and the 3rd most master’s degrees to Hispanic students of any institution in the county.

We are a Hispanic Serving Institution (HIS) and we take that responsibility very seriously. So, years ago, when government, corporate America and academia sounded alarms about our nation’s shrinking STEM pipeline, we knew that UTPA’s contribution needed to be great. We saw this as an opportunity to grow our relatively young engineering program. And, because we take our responsibility as a HSI very seriously, we set about the goal of recruiting Hispanic students from our own backyard in an effort to grow UTPA’s Engineering College.

But we soon learned that there were challenges to accomplishing this goal. Bright students were not entering engineering, because frankly, they didn’t know what an engineer was. Other students were not prepared academically to tackle advance math and science courses in college. Math, science, engineering and most technology fields require planning and preparation on the part of the students—without this preparation we set our students up to fail.

So we at UTPA decided that if we were to grow our engineering program, we would have to take a grassroots approach—we would need to appeal directly to middle and high school students in our community. We needed a plan. So with the substantial leadership of our Congressman, Ruben Hinojosa, and the support of our Congressional Delegation including Congressman Cuellar and Congressman Ortiz, we developed a plan. That plan is called HESTEC, the Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Program.

Our plan was to enlist the support of our community, corporate America, and the Federal Government to put on an event for our students that would introduce them to Hispanic role models--STEM professionals who could share with students their experience and their exciting careers.We also wanted our students to have hands-on experiences with science, technology, engineering and math that would inspire them.

Nine years ago, HESTEC was a one-day event, with a handful of dedicated sponsors, that introduced students to engineers and astronauts. Today, HESTEC is a year-long STEM program that includes a week-long event in the fall. During HESTEC week, UTPA hosts 1500 educators participating in professional development workshops giving them STEM tools to take back to the classroom. On this day, our Congressman, Ruben Hinojosa, holds a Congressional Roundtable that focuses the best minds from government and corporate America on science literacy in the Hispanic Community.

On Student Leadership Day, we host 1500 students who participate in hands-on STEM activities and hear presentations from scientists, engineers and astronauts. And on Latinas Day, we host 500 girls accompanied by their 500 mothers--recognizing that this particular audience needs to hear female role models tell their story of how they made it in professions, that have until recently, been made up mostly of men. We also host a robotics competition for 600 students and hold a STEM career fair for 2500 area college students.

At the end of this inspiring week, we invite the whole community on to our campus to participate in HESTEC Community Day. On Community Day, students and their families can visit the NASA exhibit and shake hands with Astronaut Jose Hernandez, take a ride in the Navy flight simulator, visit our planetarium, watch a magic show put on by our Chemistry Department, visit our Engineering Building and meet our professors. On Community Day alone, we will attract over 50,000 people to our campus—all to find out more about STEM careers.

And this is only during HESTEC Week in the fall. In the spring we host a Department of Energy Science Bowl for Middle and High School Students. Shell Oil Company has partnered with UTPA to launch a HESTEC Shell Scholars program in area middle schools--investing in curriculum enhancement, new technology for the classroom and mentoring provided by UTPA Engineering students. And this month, our partner, Northrup Grumman, will give 30 high school and middle school teachers a ride in a zero gravity airplane—the experience of a lifetime—that they will take back to the classrooms to excite the minds of their students.

If you think HESTEC sounds ambitious, you are right—it is. If it sounds like we have a lot of government and corporate partners, we do. We could not put on HESTEC without them. Corporate America is very concerned about the STEM pipeline and willing to invest in programs that work—programs like HESTEC. In 2007, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, attended HESTEC and spoke to students. She called HESTEC a model program.

HESTEC is a model program and for all the right reasons—HESTEC works. We are achieving our goal of growing our Engineering College. This year we will graduate our 1,237th engineer from UTPA and more than 80% of those engineers are Hispanic. We currently are ranked 7th in the nation for the number of Hispanics who graduate with engineering degrees and we won’t stop until we are #1. HESTEC is a model program because it inspires and encourages Hispanic youth to pursue STEM careers. Whether those young people attend UTPA or any other institution of high learning, we are all the better for it.

We encourage you to learn more about HESTEC. Go on line to see our website at HESTEC.org. Or better yet, plan to visit us this fall during HESTEC week, September 26th to October 2nd, 2010 and learn why HESTEC is a model program helping to build the STEM Pipeline with Hispanic engineers.

Dr. Robert Nelsen is the president of UTPA.