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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo DECEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 4
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ENGINEERING? ¡SÍ! - A program popping up in many high schools draws Latino and other underrepresented students into engineering. - By Margaret Loftus
By Margaret Loftus

After she was held back as a freshman, Angelica G. was on the verge of dropping out of high school. Her grades were low and her attitude was slipping. But all that changed in the course of a single day last spring. In April, she was one of 100 freshmen at the largely Latino Benito Juarez High School on Chicago’s South Side to attend Viva Technology, an on-campus workshop designed to generate interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers among inner-city and rural students.
It was a chance to miss a day of classes, after all. But somewhere between the team competition to invent the phone of the future and a presentation by a Motorola engineer who worked on the company’s Razr phone, Angelica’s imagination was captured. She found herself asking lots of questions. Her enthusiasm won her a digital camera from sponsor Motorola and, more important, a new lease on learning. “She enjoyed it so much that she stuck with school,” says Benito Juarez education coach Tanya Cabrera, adding that Angelica’s grades have since inched up.

Las Vegas youngsters hear about how rewarding an engineering career can be.This sort of success story is music to the ears of Hispanics at the Forefront of Engineering and Science (HENAAC), the nonprofit founder and coordinator of Viva Technology. The Viva team works with corporate sponsors, engineering professionals and undergraduate volunteers nationwide to show Latino students and others who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields that math and science can actually be fun. Since its start in 2001, Viva Technology has inspired thousands of kids like Angelica through some 30 workshops a year.

But with Hispanics totaling only 4 percent of engineers in the workforce, compared with 13.5 percent of the U.S. population—set to grow to 18 percent by 2025—the work has only just begun. “There is this huge human capital potential that is not being leveraged,” says Jorge Valdes, executive director of supplier diversity at Viva sponsor Lucent Technologies and executive director of the Young Science Achievers Program. “For America to stay ahead in terms of global competition, we need to tap into that. This is the next generation of scientists and engineers who are going to help us maintain our competitive edge.”

But while it can be a challenge to attract any kid to a career in engineering, it is doubly difficult with the low-income children targeted by Viva, many of whom have had little exposure to the technology at home that middle-class kids might take for granted. Cabrera admits that part of the excitement generated by Viva Technology were the prizes, including PSPs and laptops. “It was the talk of the week,” Cabrera recalls. “The kids said to their peers, ‘You should have gone!’” These children are more likely to come from a family where their parents haven’t graduated from college, much less work in science or engineering. As a result, STEM careers are just not on their radar, says HENAAC Deputy Executive Director Monica Villafana.


Corporate Contributions

Students from Clark County Mesa Schools put the finishing touches on their projects.The Viva concept grew out of HENAAC’s mission to honor the contributions of Hispanic Americans in the STEM fields. But as the network of Latino STEM professionals became stronger, the pipeline of Hispanics into those fields remained choked. Enter corporations, like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, who were interested in attracting the next generation of diverse STEM professionals and Hispanic engineering undergrads who were eager to share their stories to motivate youngsters, and Viva Technology was born.

Getting kids excited about STEM careers is one thing, Villafana says, but first things first. “Our students aren’t graduating from high school, let alone going into science and engineering.” Latinos accounted for 41 percent of all high school dropouts in 2003 while only making up 17 percent of the total youth population.

The Viva team discovered early on that the key to keeping these kids in the classroom is reaching their parents. Many Viva workshops include a bilingual evening orientation for parents where childcare and food are provided. HENAAC Education Consultant Mike McClure says it’s important for parents to understand the realities of the new global economy. “If kids aren’t graduating from high school and they think they are going to do a factory job, they aren’t going to be there,” McClure says. He points out that while the United States will lose 7 million jobs in manufacturing over the next 10 years, the same number of jobs will be added in technology.

Team members make sure parents know the significance of math in such jobs. “If you don’t have calculus by the 12th grade, you’re going to be at a disadvantage,” Villafana says. “A lot of times they don’t have a context of why they need math, so we are trying to attack all these things in different ways.” Parents are encouraged to make sure their kids are hitting the books and are walked through the college application process, including how to apply for financial aid. “Parents always want to help, but they may not know how,” McClure says. “We try to give them a roadmap.”

The kids, on the other hand, may need more convincing—and that’s where the fun comes in. The one-day workshop is filled with hands-on activities designed to generate interest in STEM. “It’s like a pep rally for engineering and sciences,” Villafana says. For example, Viva participants, mostly 9th or 10th graders, are divided into teams and assigned a task, from building a mousetrap-box car to coming up with an idea for the phone of the future. Each team is led by a college captain, often a member of the local university chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), who awards “Viva dollars” based on participation and teamwork. The teams aren’t judged on the presentation of their invention or idea. Rather it’s the effort that wins kudos. In the end, the accumulated viva dollars are entered in a raffle for high-tech giveaways.

The kids are often shy at first, says Alfredo Rodriguez, who volunteered last year at the Viva program at Dr. Michael Krop High School and Highland Oaks Middle School in Miami while he was an electrical engineering senior at Florida International University and president of the SHPE chapter there. But as the students become more comfortable, their curiosity is sparked. “They ask questions like ‘How do you pay for college?’ and ‘Can you make your own schedule so you can sleep in?’—something they may not ask an adult,” Rodriguez says. He notes that Viva doesn’t have trouble finding college students to help out: During one program that fell during finals week last year, SHPE was able to rally 20 undergrads to give up their whole day. That’s not surprising, Rodriguez says. “It motivated me a lot to see how happy the kids were. It makes you proud that they find engineering fun. It’s not just ‘Oh no, they’re nerds.’”

Clark County Mesa Schools team that took first place in the competition is all smiles.Further debunking the nerd myth are the STEM professional role models who give 30-minute presentations to the Viva students about their jobs and projects they’ve worked on. Generally, these are Latino engineers who work for the event’s sponsor. In some cases, they might as well be rock stars. As a senior at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles last year, Bayron Lopez heard Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Mannie Sanchez speak at a Viva event. “Talking to someone who worked on the F-117 [Nighthawk], it’s great, it gets you all pumped up,” Lopez says. It helps, too, that Sanchez grew up 4 miles from Manual Arts High School in South Central LA. “Being able to talk to someone who has been where you have, it’s cool,” says Lopez, who was born in El Salvador. “It shows that anybody can do it no matter where you come from.”

John Santos, who is the lead teacher for the Imaging Sciences and Technology Academy (ISTA) at Manual Arts, says Lopez is not alone. “Viva is something that turns our kids around because they start to see themselves differently.” Alina Feldman, a career specialist at Dr. Michael Krop High School in Miami says she’s already seen results of Viva at her school. “I think I’ve seen a lot more kids interested in going into the field of engineering as a result of our workshops.” And last spring’s program at Benito Juarez generated so much interest that the school is starting a pre-engineering program.

At ISTA, where a more intensive Viva Technology pilot program has been in place for four years, 17 out of 48 graduates in 2005 went on to engineering school, compared with an average of two in previous years. Inspired by Mannie Sanchez, Lopez is now studying aerospace engineering as a freshman at California State University, Los Angeles. “As a child I wanted to be a pilot, but this is better.”

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.

 

FEATURES
WAVE OF INFLUENCE - By Jeffrey Selingo
SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGE - By Anna Mulrine
ENGINEERING? ¡SÍ! - By Margaret Loftus
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