The eighth annual Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week at The University of Texas-Pan American "lifted off" Sept. 28 with a day dedicated to South Texas educators and the important role they play in preparing students for the future - a future that will require more students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.
More than 800 teachers and administrators from South Texas GEAR UP schools who gathered at the UTPA Fieldhouse on Educator Day were greeted by HESTEC founder Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15), who is chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and co-chair of the Democratic Caucus Education Task Force.
In the first visit by a member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to the Rio Grande Valley, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis addressed the crowd about embracing her responsibility to help every worker prepare themselves for good paying jobs in the 21st century. She said it wouldn't be easy, citing national, state and local unemployment rates and even higher rates among Latinos.
"Behind these numbers I see people, I see families. Our families are struggling with mounting bills and having a tough time paying for college, saving for retirement, or even buying food or basic necessities. This is simply not acceptable. The president and I will not be satisfied until all Americans have access to good jobs," she said.
Solis described the extensive number and types of assistance provided by $270 million in funds from the Department of Labor made possible by the National Recovery Act to help people in the economic downturn but also the need to invest in the future.
"We are releasing more than $700 million in grants to support training in clean energy jobs, health care jobs, information technology and high growth sectors especially in underserved communities like right here in South Texas," she said.
"Less than 10 percent of all Latino college students study for degrees in STEM fields," she said. "This is especially true of Latinas who still lag behind males in degrees earned in all science-related areas except biology. In 2008, over 3.6 million people worked in engineering, computer science and math and Latinos made up 14 percent of the labor force but accounted for only five percent of the workers in these fields. I say we have quite a bit of work to do."
Science Literacy Roundtable
Solis then joined other leading corporate, governmental and education leaders in a Science Literacy Roundtable, moderated by Jose Diaz Balart, anchor and correspondent for Telemundo Network, to discuss the event's theme - "Green Jobs, STEM Careers and the Future of the Hispanic Community."
Other participants in the Roundtable included U.S. Congressmen Henry Cuellar (TX-28) and Raul Grijalva (AZ-7); Thelma Melendez, assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education; Charles A. Sorber, UTPA interim president; Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor, The University of Texas System; Hector Pineda, associate general counsel, Shell Oil Company; Robert L. Del Boca, sector vice president and division general manager, Defense Systems Division, Electronics Systems Sector of Northrop Grumman; Rear Admiral Samuel Perez, deputy director, Joint interagency Task Force South, U.S. Navy; Natalie Saiz, director of Human Resources, Johnson Space Center, NASA; and Oscar Rodriguez, superintendent Mission Consolidated Independent School District and Region One Superintendent of the Year. Solis described administration initiatives to retool the workforce to be ready to fill green jobs, and recommended citizens to learn more about the opportunities available by visiting the Department of Labor Web site at http://www.dol.gov.
Corporate representatives at the Roundtable described the many initiatives they already had in place to encourage the study of STEM fields by students. Pineda, who gave a luncheon presentation, said Shell Oil Company, which sponsored Educator Day at HESTEC, supports a large number of initiatives and scholarship programs to develop a new skilled work force to create the energy technology of the future and believes that Hispanics will play a large role in that future.
"In South Texas, for example, we have for many years sponsored UTPA's TEX PREP summer program that helps prepare middle and high school students to pursue education in science and engineering. The GeoFORCE program we support with The University of Texas offers high school students the opportunity to go on field trips over four consecutive summers and to introduce them to the world of geosciences," he said.
At Northrop Grumman, Del Boca said employees are highly engaged in a number of programs to encourage the study of STEM fields by Hispanics and this year is sponsoring HESTEC's College of Science and Engineering College Symposium featuring Nobel Laureate Dr. F. Robert Curl. They also offer internship opportunities and cooperative education programs and have now hired four graduates from UTPA.
In 2006, the company developed the Weightless Flight of Discovery program which provides teachers in math and the sciences the opportunity to participate in a hands-on, professional development program that includes an experiment in a parabolic or "zero-gravity" aircraft flight that creates temporary weightlessness comparable to what humans would experience during space travel to the moon or Mars.
"We are going to bring the plane here to next year's HESTEC and allow the teachers to experience zero gravity. The plane will fly right into your local airport. During the flight profile the teachers selected can experience weightlessness. The objective here is to generate excitement about science and engineering," Del Boca said.
Breakout Sessions and Awards
Educators spent the rest of the day in a number of professional development sessions and workshops designed to enhance their skills and excitement in teaching STEM subjects. Topics ranged from the latest in NASA's new rockets to wind energy simulations presented by Region One Education Service Center. Session sponsors included the U.S. Navy, Shell Oil Company, Verizon and Raytheon.
One student and four local teachers got exciting news before the day ended. Matthew Saenz, a student at Burbank High School in San Antonio, was awarded a $180,000 scholarship through the U.S. Navy's scholarship program. Saenz will use his funds to study mechanical and aerospace engineering at one of five universities he has narrowed his choices to. Upon graduation he will begin a five year commitment to the military as a U.S. Navy ensign.
"ExxonMobil is honored to continue its support of HESTEC. Our country is in great need of more talented Hispanics who are making a difference in the critical fields of math and science and HESTEC is vital to providing these resources," said Rosendo Cruz, program officer for ExxonMobil.
HESTEC will continue on Tuesday, Sept. 29 with Student Leadership Day.
To view a photo gallery of Educator Day go to http://ur.utpa.edu/video/watch/784acad33bb113e2167. For more information on HESTEC events, go to http://hestec.utpa.edu.