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Feature: It Takes a Community

momkidcomputerRole models, peers, and parents are key to a program drawing underserved students into STEM. — from the September 2010 issue of ASEE’s Prism magazine, by Margaret Loftus

As a sophomore at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles, Bayron Lopez had set his sights on becoming a lawyer. But that changed after he heard Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Manny Sanchez speak at a school workshop designed to promote careers in science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM). “I was amazed by the possibilities that were available in engineering, and I said, ‘I want to do that!’”

Lopez, who was born in El Salvador, is now studying mechanical engineering and education as a junior at California State University, Los Angeles. What’s more, he volunteers to spread the word about engineering to middle and high school students for Viva Technology, the same outreach program for Hispanic and other underrepresented students that brought Sanchez to his school six years ago. “Knowing that I helped somebody and giving them ideas for the future, it’s amazing for me,” he says.

That Lopez has taken this path thrills the team at Great Minds in STEM (GMiS), an L.A.-based nonprofit that coordinates Viva Technology events with help from corporate and government sponsors such as Motorola and the Department of Defense, school districts, industry professionals, and college volunteers. Founded in 1989 by Ray Mellado, then a national sales manager at Xerox, to recognize the achievements of Latino STEM professionals, GMiS introduced Viva Technology in 2001. Last year, GMiS kicked off its third component, the STEM-Up Initiative, a pilot project in East L.A.’s predominantly Hispanic Boyle Heights neighborhood. STEM-Up aims to pick up where Viva leaves off, by integrating STEM career pathways in K-12 through hands-on activities, teacher workshops, parents’ nights, and community outreach. GMiS is a partner with ASEE on several K-12 initiatives.

Photo: Photo: Bayron Lopez tests a model of an earthquake tower. Bayron Lopez tests a model of an earthquake tower.

A Troubling Gap

While stories like Lopez’s are encouraging, GMiS is still fighting an uphill battle. Hispanics already make up 15.8 percent of the population, and their numbers are growing faster than any other segment. By 2050, 1 in 4 Americans will be Hispanic, the Census Bureau estimates. Yet they now comprise just over 5 percent of the engineering workforce in the United States. The gap is particularly worrisome, given that the manufacturing jobs that have long sustained first- and second-generation immigrants are disappearing. “Technology is where the jobs are going to be. I don’t think our community has made that transition,” says Mellado. “I really feel if our community is technically prepared, they’re going to be successful.”

Read the entire story at Prism online

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