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The push to get minorities into STEM fields

“I think for the U.S. economy to move forward, it’s going to be built on the STEM disciplines…if we don’t have underrepresented minorities in those plans, we’re destined to fail…” – Robert Kirken, dean of the College of Science at UTEP

WASHINGTON – After graduating from high school, Crystal Brockington plans to pursue a degree in biology or chemistry. She knows that, as a black woman, she’s part of the minority of students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and technology, or STEM fields. But she’s not daunted by the numbers, she said, instead she’s encouraged by the support she’s received.

Since 2000, the number of blacks, Hispanics and American Indians who earn degrees in engineering and the physical sciences has been flat, and participation in mathematics has dropped, according to a 2013 study by the National Science Foundation. Of the 62,211 degrees awarded in the sciences and engineering in 2010, 3,692 were awarded to black women, the study found, but prominent tech companies are hoping to get those numbers up.

“It’s definitely an area where you don’t find a lot of minorities, especially me being a female,” Brockington said. “So it’s definitely a good opportunity to go to the magnet school that I do go to, to have all these amazing opportunities and today it’s just amazing to see how a lot of people are actually pushing it.” Brockington, 18, with classmate Aaron Barron, won this year’s Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge! for their work on nanocrystals. The two seniors at Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology in Conyers, Ga., presented their research at a symposium at the Capitol.

Brockington is applying to Auburn University, University of Georgia and Emory University, where she plans to pursue a pre-medicine track in biology or chemistry.

The symposium was sponsored by Discovery Communications, a company committed to diversity in STEM fields, according to its Executive Vice President Debbie Myers. “It’s a driving force in keeping that spark alight,” she said in a statement.

The White House announced in November that $100 million will be made available to Youth CareerConnect grants partly to increase employer engagement with students interested in STEM fields. This is part of the collaboration between the Departments of Labor and Education to “provide high school students with the industry-relevant education and skills they need for a successful future.”

While the White House announcement seeks to serve all students regardless of race or ethnicity, prominent tech companies have come out in support of diversifying STEM education. A study released last year by Excelencia in Education states that in the 2009-2010 academic year, 8 percent of all certificates and degrees in STEM fields were awarded to Latinos. Google recently formed a partnership with Manos Accelerator, a mentorship program that recruits Latino startups and teaches them about the tech business.

Mark Lopez, head of U.S. Hispanic audience for Google, said that while they are committed to tapping into the growing consumer power of Latinos, they are also committed in helping Latinos create new technologies.

“We also need to make sure that Latinos in this country have the ability to take risks and be able to have ideas and make those ideas become the next Google, the next Facebook,” Lopez said at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute public policy conference in October. Tony Jimenez, president and CEO of MicroTech, said that growing up Hispanic he never thought about being CEO of an IT company.

“Nobody knew how to explain to me ‘si se puede.’ Nobody talked to me about the possibility of someday being the CEO of an IT company or even, for that matter, what the importance of STEM was,” Jimenez said at the conference. “I ended up as an IT CEO because eventually I understood that there is nothing I can’t do as a Hispanic in America.”

Getting students interested in STEM fields has to start early, Robert Kirken, the dean of the College of Science at the University of Texas at El Paso, said.

UTEP is the top producer of undergraduate engineering, mathematics and statistics degrees among Hispanics in the U.S., according to a report by Diversity Education.

“We know that to get the kids to come into STEM disciplines and stay in STEM disciplines we can’t just begin working on them once they get here,” Kirken said.

Kirken said reaching out the El Paso youth in Spanish and English is critical to getting enrollment numbers up. The College of Science does this through science demonstrations, by judging science fairs and providing lab tours. During the 2011-2012 academic year, UTEP awarded 895 STEM degrees, a 39 percent increase over seven years.

Providing paying research opportunities is also important, Kirken said. Students tend to have multiple jobs outside the university and that can be a distraction.

UTEP was recently awarded $2.1 million in STEM research grants to help strengthen minority interest, education and participation in STEM related fields.

“It prepares them for life after UTEP,” Kirken said. “They’ll be more confident because they’ll have good mentors, they’ll have worked on or cutting-edge equipment and technology.”

Kirken said that, although there’s no one strategy to get students excited about STEM, creating better teachers, funded research opportunities and community outreach are helping get Hispanics in the classrooms.

“I think for the U.S. economy to move forward, it’s going to be built on the STEM disciplines,” Kirken said. “And if we don’t have underrepresented minorities in those plans, we’re destined to fail – there’s no question about that.”

Andrés Rodríguez is a UTEP senior double major in Spanish and English and American literature. He is currently participating in the Scripps Howard Foundation Semester in Washington program. He may be reached at [email protected].

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The push to get minorities into STEM fields