High school teachers from across South Texas performed surgery with the help of robots, prevented the earth from demise from an asteroid and sought ways to combat a zombie apocalypse at The University of Texas-Pan American's 12th annual Hispanic Engineering, Science & Technology (HESTEC) week.
About 400 science and math teachers attended HESTEC's Educator Day Oct. 7, which included breakout sessions that showed them activities and tools they can use to engage their students in learning, as well as discussions by leaders in the public and private sector about how important educators are in shaping future generations of scientists, engineers and innovators.
During a Congressional Roundtable on Science Literacy, leaders from government, corporate America and educational institutions and organizations discussed the opportunities in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and how to best encourage students, particularly those underrepresented in STEM to enter and be successful in STEM careers.
U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, who founded HESTEC in partnership with UTPA, said while college enrollment by Latinos in Texas has increased 110 percent from 2000 to 2012, bolstered by federal investments in financial aid, there is still a long way to go especially, in STEM fields and what he called "the jobs of the future."
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen shared what opportunities, particularly in STEM, will come about as a result of UTPA's merger with The University of Texas at Brownsville and the creation of a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley. He cited work already being done by students to address problems such as flooding and diabetes, both prevalent in the Valley.
"The new university will be a hub of innovation and have applied research taking place ... it will serve the Valley in ways we have never been able to do. And it will serve STEM, it will guarantee that there are jobs here in the Valley," he said. "In just 10 years we expect to have 375 more doctors than we have in the Valley right now ... we expect to have 6,000 to 10,000 jobs with the average salary around $63,000."
The panelists talked to the educators about the skills that will be necessary to be successful in 21st century jobs, such as critical thinking, teamwork and collaborative skills, adaptability and lifelong learning. Lt. Col. Walter Llamas from the U.S. Army praised the leadership training his branch of the military provides young people, including "when to be a leader and when to be a follower," he said.
Laura Gump, vice president for the H-E-B border region, said students need to learn how to think - not just memorize - and to develop people skills.
"They must be able to work with a lot of different people," she said. "Collaboration is key."
Pilar Montoya, CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which has nearly 350 student chapters, spoke on behalf of Exxon Mobil, and described the lifetime support her organization provides Hispanics in STEM and her hope to create chapters in high schools as well.
"We are about celebrating the intelligence and talents that our community has," she said, citing the support necessary from corporations and government to address the nation's critical need for more STEM professionals. "It will be our community that will be the solution. But we want to work with you, with the corporations and the University to really make the impact. It is really in partnership that we have the impact we have."
After a visit in the Texas Alliance for Minorities in Engineering (TAME)'s Trailblazer - a large van carrying 21 different hands-on STEM-related exhibits focused on space, energy, biotechnology, aerodynamics and weather - teacher Mario Flores wondered how he could get the Trailblazer to come to his school.
The geometry and pre-calculus educator at Brownsville ISD's Veterans Memorial High School participated in demonstrations of solar powered fans, tornado tubes and robotic surgery, to name a few, in the traveling exhibit supported by Shell.
"My favorite was the aerodynamics - it included different shapes and how the air pressure around the shapes affect them, whether it goes one way or stays stable" said Flores, describing the TAME exhibit where various shaped Styrofoam objects were inserted into a tube of uprising air to see if they were lifted or not.
Maria del Mar, who teaches pre-AP biology at PSJA Southwest Early College High School in Pharr and was attending her first Educator Day, said some of the TAME Trailblazer exhibits could be easily re-created in her classroom to help her students better understand more difficult topics.
"HESTEC is giving me a lot of ideas and inspiration for the classroom and a chance to meet with very experienced teachers," she said.
The TAME Trailblazer's Teacher Associate V.J. Willis said all of its exhibits are directly tied to the fourth- through eighth-grade TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) and designed to be interactive and exciting.
"We are trying to get people to understand that scientists are not dull, boring, geeky people. They are on the cutting-edge of technology and they get to do all the cool stuff before everybody else gets to see it and make good money at it, to boot," he said.
At another breakout session, some teachers learned how to prevent an asteroid from destroying the earth and study the brain activity of zombies using a Texas Instruments calculator in the "STEM Behind Hollywood" workshop.
Zachary De La Rosa, who teaches algebra and geometry at Roma High School, said his students would enjoy these interactive activities like the ones he and fellow educators worked on during the session.
"What's really nice about these types of activities is that you can modify them to make them as appropriate to any particular lesson," he said.
Claudia Carranza (BS '11, mathematics), who teaches geometry at La Feria High School, said she is eager to start using the calculators to create lesson plans for her students.
"I'm a techno geek, I love doing anything kind of off-the-wall technology things because they (the students) are so visually oriented now that that's what they need," Carranza said.
Carranza, who helped UTPA faculty members set up booths for HESTEC years ago when she was a student, said she appreciates how the University offers educators this type of professional development to help them better serve their students.
In the afternoon, educators heard from David Laguna-Aponte, an economist with Shell Exploration and Production, and Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of famous underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau who followed in his grandfather's footsteps to become an explorer, social entrepreneur and environmental advocate.
"It's stories like that that really make a deep impression in young students," he said.
Cousteau, who co-founded the nonprofit environmental education organization EarthEcho International with his sister Alexandra, talked about how the decline of the environment's health has affected human health, including seeing a rise in the number of children who suffer from asthma.
He urged the educators to take part in preparing their students to tackle the challenges toward improving the environment.
"I believe that this community and communities like it around the country are part of that great next generation that will change this country for the better," he said. "As educators of this new generation, you have a wonderful opportunity and responsibility to lead that generation toward a better future."
Nelsen praised the teachers for their work and attributed to them the decrease in the percentage of incoming freshmen having to take remedial courses from about 47 percent a decade ago to less than 16 percent this year.
"You guys rock," Nelsen said. "It is because of you and what you do that makes a difference."
Nelsen also encouraged the teachers to use the University as a resource in educating their students.
"Our University wants to be the yes university, so ask and we will deliver," he said.
HESTEC continues Tuesday, Oct. 8 with Student Leadership Day, when hundreds of students from all over South Texas will come to learn about opportunities available to them in the STEM fields.
For more information, visit www.utpa.edu/hestec.