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HESTEC's Educator Day Roundtable focuses on student STEM success and challenges
Posted: 09/26/2011
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Jesse Saldivar, senior adviser, U.S. Business Affairs at Shell, can't imagine any solution to any big problem we have had in the United States that hasn't come from science, technology or some type of engineering.

"You get to work on problems and challenges that can be very rewarding. From those challenges come passion," said Saldivar, a graduate of nearby Falfurrias High School and a panelist at this year's HESTEC Congressional Roundtable Sept. 26 at The University of Texas-Pan American. "Technical degrees prepare you for a lot in life. The process you go through in solving problems really makes you a leader."

HESTEC's Educator Day Sept. 26 kicked off with a Congressional Roundtable composed of corporate officials, government and higher education leaders and technology and science experts who discussed challenges and successes in encouraging Hispanic students to pursue careers in STEM fields. The event was moderated by comedian and motivational speaker Shayla Rivera (at podium), who as an aerospace engineer has worked at NASA's Space Center in Houston.

Shell was the corporate sponsor of HESTEC's Educator Day which attracted about 1,000 South Texas middle school math and science educators who heard members of Congress, government officials, scientists, corporate executives and technology experts discuss best practices and share successful strategies to encourage more Hispanic students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

During the roundtable, panelists described some of the programs, initiatives and funding made available to both students and educators to support STEM education and discussed some of the challenges presented by not having enough young people pursuing STEM fields. They agreed that the need for more STEM graduates, particularly Hispanics and women, is critical to the nation's competitiveness and economic well-being, and the earlier a student's interest in STEM is stimulated and encouraged, the more likely the interest in those fields will blossom and grow.

"Middle school is where it is at. We need to excite children at the fourth grade, third grade to think about math, science and engineering. If we don't, we lose them," said James Pitts, president of electronics systems at Northrop Grumman.

Thomas K. Sneed, vice president and chief information officer of Marathon Oil Corporation, said he recalled watching Bill Nye, the Science Guy, a guest at this year's HESTEC, on TV with his children when they were young and recalled how excited his daughter got when she saw Nye riding across her Cornell University campus years later.

"Getting to children as early as possible is absolutely the key in generating greater interest in science, engineering and technology," Sneed said. "I can't think of anyone other than educators and parents who play such a vital role in stimulating and generating that interest early. Children are naturally inquisitive, we have to cultivate that."

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, described to educators NASA resources and programs available to them and their students to encourage interest in STEM fields as a keynote speaker during HESTEC Educator Day Sept. 26. Ochoa is a scientist and former NASA astronaut.
While there are challenges, the panel said, students, parents and educators need to be made more aware of the tremendous opportunities that are available in STEM.

STEM jobs are predicted to increase 17 percent in the next 10 years, will grow three times faster than any other jobs and result in 46 percent more in pay than non-STEM employees, so they are important to UT Pan American, said the University's President Robert S. Nelsen.

"Math, science and engineering are driving our economy in these tough economic times and are our only hope for turning the future around, for turning the economy around and for making certain that we have high paying jobs here in the Valley," he said.

Although the National Science Foundation in 2007 said only 8 percent of the degrees awarded in STEM fields went to Hispanics, Nelsen and U.S. Representative Rubén Hinojosa pointed to HESTEC as a program and a national model in raising the visibility and importance of STEM fields in the Latino community and strengthening the education pipeline for Hispanics in the STEM fields. He said its successes are a result of the strong collaborations the University has created with local school systems, federal partners and the corporate and foundation sponsors who have dedicated their resources to the effort.

"This annual event has ignited a love for science and math in our community and exposed our young people to the endless possibilities in the STEM fields," Hinojosa said.

Today, UT Pan American is nationally recognized as one of the largest producers of Hispanic engineers in the country and its enrollments in bachelor's degrees in electrical, mechanical manufacturing and computer engineering have exploded in the past decade, Hinojosa said.

"At Pan Am today, we just broke (a total of) 19,000 students. We have over 1,700 engineers. We produce the third most Hispanic graduates in mathematics in the United States out of any college and over 22 percent of our students are enrolled in STEM fields - 4,200 students," said Nelsen.

During Educator Day four RGV STEM educators were honored by ExxonMobil as Teachers of the Year for their expertise in and dedication to working with students in math and science. Pictured left to right are Rosendo Cruz, program officer for ExxonMobil, and honorees Lliona Belinario, Zapata High School; Patricia Perez, Pace High School (Brownsville); James Ulatowski, J. Economedes High School (Edinburg); and Gustavo Guzman, Valley View High School.
While much progress has been made in the areas of affordability and accessibility, Hinojosa said the nation still needs to address the issue of college persistence and completion by Hispanics.

"We cannot afford to lose another generation of Latino youth and adults to poverty and low-wage, low-skilled jobs," he said. "By working together, our community can answer President Obama's call to increase graduation rates for Latino students and prepare them to become the innovators of tomorrow."

Following the symposium, four Valley math or science teachers were honored by ExxonMobil for their dedication to working with students in math and science, integration of technology into the classroom, motivation of students and efforts to promote a college going culture. They each won a trip to a STEM-related conference for teachers and an iPad.

In the Region One GEAR UP schools, Exxon Mobil recognized Lliona Belinario, chemistry teacher at Zapata High School, and Gustavo Guzman, a math teacher at Valley View High School. In UTPA GEAR UP schools, the honorees were Patricia Perez, an AP physics teacher at Pace High School in Brownsville, and James Ulatowski, a geometry, pre-calculus and engineering math teacher at J. Economedes High School in Edinburg.

Before the day moved forward to breakout sessions and campus symposiums for UTPA education and business students, former astronaut and deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center Dr. Ellen Ochoa, who also served as a roundtable panelist, shared information on a network of NASA programs and resources available to STEM educators to enhance their teaching of STEM fields. She also thanked them for the critical role they play in preparing students for success in life and STEM.

"It is critical to the nation as you know that we develop more engineers, more scientists, more mathematicians who play such an important role in our future economic prosperity. And of course we at NASA depend on the students who come from here to help us to continue to inspire students in the future by being able to carry out inspirational missions, incredibly audacious missions far beyond anything I could have imagined when I was in school," Ochoa said.