december cover

Nuestro Futuro

When the Dallas Cowboys took the field for the first NFL game played at their new stadium, millions tuned in to marvel at its many hi-tech wonders. The 3 million-square-foot, $1.1 billion stadium is one small glimpse at the future that technology makes possible. Fans can e-mail photos to friends, find lost children, cash in wireless coupons and watch customized content on thousands of televisions. The nearly 90 million feet of copper wire, 200 miles of fiber-optic cable and a complex wireless network allow 20,000 simultaneous cell phone calls to take place without a glitch.

But most of these technologically-powered perks are taken for granted. Therein lies the conundrum, which is a metaphor for a larger issue facing the Latino community. While we are consistently wowed by the many forms of technology that improve human life daily—from video games to life-saving medicines—too few of today’s students visualize themselves as the creators of tomorrow’s hi-tech wonders, like the Cowboys stadium. Furthermore, only a frightening few are actually prepared to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

That’s nuestro futuro (our future). It demands that more students take an interest in how the tools of the world around us are made. In 2006, about 215,000 engineers graduated in the U.S. It is estimated that by the year 2020 we’ll need to graduiate 100,000 more to meet the projected demand. How can we close the gap? Where will those engineers come from?

Over a decade ago, as the internet made its way into the mainstream and into millions of homes across the country, news of the digital divide began to surface in the media. Underserved, primarily minority communities lacked access to home computers, internet service and even the infrastructure necessary for internet service in their neighborhoods and towns. Fortunately, the digital divide as we knew it is on the decline.

The divide that prevented Latinos and African Americans from simply getting online has greatly improved, says Cynthia Miller of the Alliance for Digital Equality. In fact, she reports, much of the internet’s growth in the U.S. can be attributed to minorities who are purchasing home computers, subscribing to internet service and boosting the overall expansion. According to eMarketer, Latinos make up approximately 12 percent of the total U.S. online population, and Latinos are some of the most avid users of mobile technology, according to Latinos tend to use mobile broadband more than the general market—53 percent vs. 33 percent, respectively. So the digital divide alone can not be blamed for keeping Latino students from excelling in STEM subjects.

There seems to be a new divide, many experts say. It’s a disconnect between the way students think about engineering and the wide range of careers in the STEM fields, everything from computers to financial services to law enforcement. “People don’t understand that engineers and scientists are just problem solvers,” says Ray Mellado, founder and chair of HENAAC (which stood for the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference at its inception in 1989). “If we are going to stay competitive as a country, millions will have to be motivated to be part of the solution.” Corporations and nonprofits, the private and public sectors alike are taking steps to ensure that teachers, classrooms and students have the tools necessary to close the gap.

HENAAC was established as a means of identifying, honoring, and documenting the contributions of outstanding Hispanic American science, engineering, technology and math professionals. Initially, it “set the precedent for excellence in engineering and science” but soon expanded beyond the conference. For example, in 2000 the organization introduced the College Bowl, a competitive two-day workshop for college students preparing to enter engineering careers. Participants are encouraged to apply STEM skills to real-world challenges that promote career success.

While providing experiences for college students who are already on the path to a STEM career is critical to keeping them on course, the organization recognizes earlier STEM education and preparation must occur to increase the overall numbers. “We have to raise the bar as far as what children have to do in school as well as raise awareness among parents that children have to be part of the solution,” Mellado says.

In 2001, HENAAC launched Viva Technology, a K-12 educational program designed to introduce pre-college students to the exciting careers in science, engineering and technology. Viva Technology engages inner-city and rural K-12 students, teachers and parents in the applications of technology. The program brings elementary and high school teachers to university classrooms to learn and improve techniques to teach STEM to their students. It also brings engineers and scientists back into classrooms to introduce hands-on engineering and science exercises and gets parents involved in the process to raise awareness of the possibilities of related careers. The organization also offers the Scholars Program, which has awarded over $919,000 in scholarships to college students from across the country since 2001.

At its 2009 conference, HENAAC announced a name change to “Great Minds in STEM,” including efforts to aid all underserved communities, not just Latinos. This includes a new program, STEM-Up, which introduces strategies to integrate STEM career pathways into schools and local communities through comprehensive, community-by-community implementation. STEM-Up will include interaction with college students, access to professional role models, hands-on classroom activities, teacher professional development and parent workshops. To raise awareness about STEM-Up, an artist alliance that includes entertainment and sport figures such as the Black Eyed Peas, Jessica Alba and Wilmer Valderrama will lend their voices and celebrity to a print, radio, internet and television campaign.

In 2001, Cong. Ruben Hinojosa teamed up with the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) in Edinburgh, Texas to address the critical shortage of engineers in the Latino community. Cong. Hinojosa (see Latino Interview, p. 46) was elected to Congress in 1996 and quickly took a leadership role in the Education and Labor Committee. Most recently, he was instrumental in the House passing H.R. 3221, the Student Aid and Responsibility Act, which will provide $1 billion in competitive grants for Hispanic-Serving Institutions to retain Latino students in STEM. Located in his district, UTPA is the second largest producer of Latino math degrees in the nation. Yet the area also has one of the lowest rates of high school and college completion in the country.

The result of this unprecedented collaboration was the Hispanic Engineering, Science &Technology Week (HESTEC). In eight years, it’s grown into a STEM juggernaut which reaches and inspires over 400,000 predominantly Hispanic students in the Rio Grande Valley. This year’s conference began with a Congressional dinner hosted by Cong. Hinojosa for colleagues such as Cong. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Cong. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida. and ending with a Career Fair and Community Day which attracted over 50,000 people. In between was an Educator Day focusing on improving educational techniques, where teachers from around the country were addressed by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis; a Latinas Day for female students and their mothers, demonstrating the important roles Latinas play in STEM; and a Robotics Day, where high school student teams squared off in robotic competitions, judged by scientists from Fortune 500 companies.

HESTEC’s success has led to its being a national model for similar programs at other universities, and there are plans to expand HESTEC throughout Texas and the rest of the country. One factor is the amount of corporate support from long-time sponsors such as ExxonMobil, Northrop Grumman, Shell Oil. HEB, and IBC Bank. Government sponsors include the Navy, the National Science foundation (NSF), and NASA.

Another organization with a vested interest in increasing early STEM education is the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). This professional organization was founded in Los Angeles in 1974 by a group of engineers employed by the city of Los Angeles who sought to form a national organization of professional engineers to serve as role models in the Hispanic community. The group’s primary focus is to “enhance and achieve the potential of Hispanics in engineering, math and science,” and membership includes professional, college and high school chapters.

SHPE national president Manny Hernandez agrees with Mellado when it comes to the goal of enhancing the use of technology in classrooms. With the digital divide shrinking and internet-equipped computers in most classrooms, the challenge now is instructing teachers to use the internet in day-to-day lesson plans. Like HENAAC, SHPE’s annual conference includes programs specifically for teachers. “We aim to better equip teachers to teach technology in a way that will capture the imagination,” Hernandez says. “The purpose is to spark an interest in everyday technology.”

SHPE partners with Advancing Hispanic Excellence in Technology, Engineering, Math and Science (AHETEMS) in a two-day teacher program. This includes 100 middle school and high school teachers in predominantly Hispanic-serving schools. The training provides teachers with resources and strategies, such as hands-on workshops and supplementary materials, designed to connect Hispanic students to science and mathematics through the application of culturally competent and innovative techniques.

SHPE also taps its network of members to present role models to young Latinos and to introduce them to engineering careers. Students need role models and “regular” engineers (not just celebrities like astronaut Ellen Ochoa) to talk to them about what’s required and highlight technology in normal things they use and take for granted. Using his own life to illustrate the point, Hernandez describes himself as a poor Puerto Rican boy from New York City who normally would have been tracked toward a vocational field:

“I got lucky and decided to pursue academics like calculus and trigonometry. My parents didn’t know what an engineer was,” he says. “You would think that over the years you wouldn’t see that behavior anymore, but it happened to my own daughter when her counselor was putting her in typing and home economics classes. We turned that around quickly, but she was lucky to have two parents at home who took an interest. If students don’t have that, then who steps in? That’s where SHPE comes in.”

Among SHPE and AHETEMS’s many pre-college education programs is Noches de Ciencias. These family science nights are a series of awareness events that host K-12 students to promote interest in science and engineering and present scholarship opportunities. Activities include bilingual workshops for parents on college choice and financial aid.

“Excellence in math and science education in the United States has a direct correlation to our country’s ability to successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community,” said Rosendo Cruz, Program Officer for Education and Diversity, ExxonMobil. “SHPE is one of the premier Hispanic associations with an ability to drive educational access and job opportunities for the entire Hispanic Community. SHPE represents a diverse pipeline of talent that will fill the leadership roles of tomorrow. We are proud to support SHPE and their many educational initiatives.”

Corporations that rely on technology also have a vested interest in STEM education and the use of technology in classrooms. One of these is ExxonMobil, which often describes itself as “a company of engineers.” Over the last 30 years ExxonMobil has invested more than $1 billion toward education worldwide. For example, the company joined forces with golfer Phil Mickelson to train teachers of third through fifth graders in innovative teaching methods and hands-on applications of math and science. Each summer, 600 teachers from school districts across the country attend the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academies. They offer a five-day program, with camps in New Jersey, Texas and Louisiana, designed to provide these teachers with the knowledge and skills necessary to motivate students to pursue careers in science and math.

Another program is “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.” Each year, more than 3,000 middle school girls visit local ExxonMobil facilities and get first-hand experience as an engineer. The event is part of the company’s participation in National Engineers Week. While at ExxonMobil facilities, the girls learn about engineering, speak with successful women engineers, and perform engineering related experiments that provide enthusiasm for the profession. And for almost a decade, ExxonMobil has sponsored the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards to honor Latino students who excel in engineering and mathematics. The recipients are graduating seniors who are chosen based on academic achievement, community service, as well as an essay about the importance of their heritage.

For companies like Google, encouraging Latinos to enter the STEM fields is part of the business model as a whole. “When you consider how huge and incredibly diverse our user base is—it includes people all over the world who speak all languages—it’s important for us as a client-serving and product-creating entity to serve all of our users and clients. To do that, we firmly believe that we have to build a workforce that is reflective of our user base,” says Jordan Bookey, Programs Manager for Global Diversity and Inclusion at Google. “Our challenge is to ensure a bigger, broader pool of talent,” she says, and the various educational initiatives they support are their own “Googley way of doing it.”

One such effort Google supports is Carnegie Mellon University’s CS4HS (Computer Science for High Schools). This new program reaches out to K-8 and high school teachers to provide resources to help them teach computer science in a fun and relevant way. Goals include helping teachers explain to students the exciting possibilities for those who go on to study computer science in college.

Another is sponsorship of the inaugural Leadership, Education and Development (LEAD) program for Engineering. “After hearing requests from sponsors, applicants and university admission officers, LEAD will leverage the use of its highly successful youth development program model and launch into additional summer programs targeted to students with proven mathematical ability and that have interests in more technical fields of study,” the organization reports. As a sponsor, Google hosts a group of high school students for three weeks of classes and on-site visits to related companies in the area.

Like Google, Intel has invested in creating a new generation of engineers. “Having strong math and science skills and the ability to think critically and to problem solve are critical to success,” says Carlos Contreras, U.S. Education Manager for Intel. But the question is, “How do you find and cultivate the next generation of innovators? If a kid can throw a 90-mile-per-hour ball, we can find him no matter where he is. How do we do that for kids who excel in science, math and technology?”

For students, Intel supports the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network, an innovative, after-school technology learning program designed to give youth in underserved communities the tools for personal and professional success. Currently available in more than 100 communities in 20 countries, Computer Clubhouses offer a safe environment and a creative place where students work with adult mentors and staff, using technology as a tool for learning and creative expression. Each Clubhouse estimates welcoming an average of 150 students, which adds up to over 25,000 students served annually.

All of Intel’s initiatives serve to prepare students and raise awareness about possible STEM careers, Contreras says. “Especially for our community, it’s very important for Latinos to see other Latinos doing this job as role models. We can also help parents understand that they can help students and that science is more than memorizing formulas. I tell students to look at cell phones and compare what they looked like 20 years ago and today. They didn’t get to be that way by themselves. It takes humans and brain power.”

The recurring message among corporations and nonprofits working to close the achievement gap in STEM is that science, technology, engineering and math surround us daily, in small items like the cell phone to Texas-sized places like the Cowboys’ Stadium. Making students aware of STEM in the everyday world around them and that someone just like them created it all will help them understand that they, too, can make new technologies and solve problems.

And it has to start in the classroom. “It’s imperative that students be exposed to technology early because they are the future,” says Miller of the Alliance for Digital Equality. “Minorities make up half of the entering workforce of the future. Society needs to see the impact of preparing those students for the 21st century. They’re placing an investment in the future.”

Diana Terry-Azios is a freelance writer based in New York.