Changing Faces

 

Jan/Feb 2013

Changing Faces

More Hispanics are graduating with engineering degrees. The fastest-growing population offers the U.S. talent to help meet workforce needs, but is enough being done to tap its members' potential?

BY EVA KAPLAN-LEISERSON

 

Students test their catapult at a Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Noche de Ciencias (Science Night).
Students test their catapult at a Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Noche de Ciencias (Science Night). Photo Credit: SHPE

The ethnic and racial makeup of the U.S. is changing rapidly. The reality we grew up with is no longer true, the picture shifting before our eyes. The 2010 U.S. Census showed that African Americans, once the largest minority group, have been outpaced by Hispanics and Latinos. The Hispanic population is now the largest and fastest-growing minority in the U.S., comprising 16.5% of the citizens, or about one of every six Americans. That figure is projected to grow to one in three by 2060.

 

The demographic shift offers implications for many aspects of society, including the future engineering workforce. The profession knows it needs to develop more engineers from underutilized populations such as Hispanics, African Americans, and women in order to meet the talent needs of U.S. companies and ensure the country's competitive future. What are the challenges? How are outreach efforts helping? And what else needs to be done to harness this natural resource?

Half Full/Half Empty
More Hispanic students are earning college degrees than ever before, and the number choosing engineering continues to grow. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the percentage of Hispanic students receiving engineering bachelor's degrees has increased each year of the last 10, while the percentages have fallen for African Americans, Asian Americans, and whites over that period.

In 2011, Hispanics earned 8.5% of engineering undergraduate degrees, up from 5.5% in 2002. The increase seems to be due not only to population growth but also to growing numbers graduating from high school and enrolling in college—perhaps partly due to outreach efforts.

Despite the boost, experts point out that's still not good enough. As National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest has put it, the U.S. is headed for a "workforce train wreck" because the two largest minority groups in the U.S. (Hispanics and African Americans) comprise about a third of the college-aged youth but earn less than 13% of the engineering degrees.

Is this a crisis or an opportunity? The answer depends on your perspective.

Challenges
Recruiting Hispanic students into engineering requires overcoming several key obstacles. One of these is the legacy issue. Young people are often encouraged to study engineering by parents or other family members who are members of the profession. As Pilar Montoya, CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, explains, very few Hispanic youth can go home and talk to mom or dad and say, "You're an engineer. How did you do it?"

For instance, Javier Herrero, P.E, a professional radio access network engineer at AT&T, was always interested in fixing things growing up, but there were no engineers in his family. His father worked in maintenance and often performed technical tasks, but he didn't guide his son into engineering. It was Herrero's best friend, who also became an engineer, who ended up serving as a role model and helped to point him in that direction.

Montoya explains that increasing awareness in families about engineering and STEM careers is where outreach needs to start. "A lot of the community don't know this is a tremendous opportunity for a very good-paying career," she says. "The first step is to educate students and parents about the fact that there are a lot of opportunities in the STEM field[s] and a lot of support organizations and resources to help students make it to college and graduate."

Hispanic students who want to pursue engineering are often the first generation going to college, the CEO points out, so they can't rely on support from home about how to apply, fund their education, or succeed in their career.

College readiness can be another major roadblock. The 2011 Forbes article "Are Hispanics America's Next Great STEM Innovators?" cited statistics showing that 40% of Latino adults in the U.S. over 20 lacked a high school diploma, and the average Hispanic high school senior's math skills were on par with a white 8th grader.

Irving Pressley McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, stresses that Latino high school students need to increase their participation in the rigorous core curricula that will prepare them for undergraduate STEM studies, such as three years of math including precalculus or higher and three years of science, including biology. Still, he notes that Latino students are currently better exposed to these classes than African American students overall.

The affordability of higher education is another concern. While some scholarships are available through organizations such as NACME and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, more are needed.

And once students reach college, retention is critical. Montoya points out that about 40% of Hispanic students who enter STEM majors eventually drop out.

The transfer from community college to four-year programs plays another role. More than half of Latinos enrolled in college are pursuing degrees at two-year institutions, reports McPhail. "We need to watch the whole transfer articulation process," he says. "We need to make certain that students who enter the community college are getting the awareness and opportunity to participate in the engineering science transfer programs and are doing that in a way that enables the community college to serve as a pathway to engineering careers."

The NACME CEO is encouraged by the increasing rates of participation of Latinos in engineering education but notes that there's "still a long way to go."

What's Working
Outreach efforts are already underway to harness the potential of the Hispanic engineering and STEM workforce. The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers is one group leading the charge. The organization of university and professional members, along with its educational foundation, aims to inspire the younger generations and grow the numbers of Hispanics in STEM careers.

One very successful SHPE initiative is Noche de Ciencias (Science Night). The evenings bring together middle and high school students in interactive activities such as robotics to show them the fun of engineering. In addition, seminars and workshops guide parents in tasks such as filling out college grant applications.

SHPE aims to expand this program throughout the U.S. and to do so is partnering with other groups such as the Naval Sea Systems Command.

Mentoring is another key strategy the organization is pushing. SHPE is working to grow chapters at high schools and then connect those students with university or professional members. Says Montoya, "You can have a person that looks like [a student], that comes from the same background, that has the same challenges, demonstrate that they're at MIT. Then the likelihood of that student believing they have the capacity to do the same increases."

But SHPE doesn't stop with helping students enroll in engineering majors or even with graduation. The society also offers resources to help students transition to the work world.

For instance, a Corporate Readiness Program developed in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson provides training in two phases. The first centers on attaining a job, with help in writing resumes, interviewing, and crafting elevator speeches. A second phase helps students with critical job skills such as working in teams and engaging with supervisors. Says Montoya: "I want a company to come to me and say, 'I want more of those Corporate-Readiness-trained students, because they are phenomenal hires for us.'"

The Academy of Engineering (AOE) program is another effort helping to create more Hispanic engineering graduates (see "Engineering Career Academies Drive Student Success," November 2012 PE). Developed by the National Academy Foundation, NACME, and STEM curriculum provider Project Lead the Way, the high school career academies are making a difference—97% of seniors involved in NAF academies graduate from high school, compared to a 50% overall graduation rate in cities where they're located.

Gerson Grijalva, a student originally from Guatemala who graduated last spring from Las Vegas AOE site Northwest Career and Technical Academy, is now studying mechanical engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He believes that "it is important that [members of] underrepresented groups begin to appear in bigger numbers to show that they are just like any other person, capable of achieving what they want if they try for it and capable of doing their jobs just like [members of] any other group." More Hispanics are embracing the importance of higher education, he says, and outreach efforts are helping.

According to McPhail, the project-based learning and mentoring opportunities offered by the Academy of Engineering program help build exposure to and interest in engineering, and have contributed to growth in the number of Latino students earning NACME scholarships. Latinos represented 53% of the 2010?11 NACME Scholars, while African Americans comprised 41%. "We're seeing more and more of our NACME Scholars representing the fastest growing population in the U.S.," says McPhail.

He also points to nonprofit Great Minds in STEM as an effective organization that provides students with positive role models. The nonprofit focuses on STEM awareness for students as young as kindergarten age and helps recognize and recruit Hispanics.

For instance, the organization's Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference brings together executives, scientists, engineers, and STEM students to honor Hispanic technical achievement. It also offers students seminars, networking opportunities, and a career fair.

Academic Efforts
Colleges and universities that largely serve Hispanics are also doing their part to support the population's entrance into STEM fields.

For the last 11 years, the University of Texas-Pan American has been organizing a Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology week. Held in September, the initiative brings in speakers from all over the country and serves about 15,000 students in grades 7?12 as well as counselors and teachers who spread what they've learned to students back at their institutions.

Participants can join in activities such as a robotics competition, attend workshops, and view projects and displays from the College of Engineering and Computer Science and others.

According to Dean David Allen, P.E., UT is on the front lines of the challenge the U.S. is facing in improving the college graduation rate of the Hispanic population. The Rio Grande Valley is more than 80% Hispanic, and the university has the highest enrollment of Hispanics of any U.S. engineering institution. "It makes for an excellent laboratory for trying to figure out what the solutions are to the challenges we face," Allen says.

The engineering and computer science dean also brings up the legacy issue. Only 15% of those in the valley have college degrees, he explains, so the university works to act as a surrogate parent and help students recognize that their interest in robotics, computer games, or cars is a calling to a STEM discipline.

In September 2012, the school's Center of Excellence in STEM Education opened, aimed at strengthening STEM programs and increasing the number of STEM graduates, especially from underrepresented groups. It will focus on areas such as curriculum reform, faculty development, and recruitment and outreach.

Florida International University is another institution working hard in this area. As the U.S. institution graduating the most Hispanics with STEM degrees, the school has made recruitment and retention a top priority.

The College of Engineering and Computing brings in about 1,500 students from the Miami-Dade school district for an engineering expo during Engineers Week. Once students enroll, they can access resources such as a summer bridge program that provides remedial education, peer tutoring, and internships.

The school emphasizes active learning in engineering courses. It also recently launched a STEM Transformation Institute that brings together faculty from across the colleges to revamp STEM education in preschool through graduate school.

Last March, the college hosted a workshop with support from the National Science Foundation on ways to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM and identify best practices.

In a congressional briefing last fall, FIU College of Engineering and Computing Dean Amir Mirmiran, P.E., and several other engineering deans presented recommendations from the resulting report—such as setting a target for underrepresented minorities earning engineering degrees at 20% by 2025, creating a "GI Bill" for STEM, and redesigning the engineering curriculum to emphasize active learning and internships. The deans have formed the Consortium of Minority-Serving Engineering and Technology Programs at Urban Public Universities to work toward the 20% target.

Onward
Despite outreach efforts and encouraging gains in graduation rates, Hispanics still make up only 6% of the engineering workforce.

Organizations and institutions are making strides to address the issue, but the challenge is multidimensional. McPhail points out other key pieces of the puzzle: ensuring talented math and science teachers in schools, especially those that serve large populations of underrepresented minorities; educating teachers and counselors about STEM professions so they can guide students; and increasing the numbers of Latinos who earn PhDs so more can serve as faculty role models to students. (About 4% of U.S. engineering faculty is Latino.)

As the NACME CEO points out, there's not necessarily a unique formula for Latino students that is any different than for African American or American Indian or other underrepresented groups. He lists the key elements as "awareness, appropriate pre-engineering education, opportunity to gain experience, role models and mentoring, and then a set of higher education institutions providing scholarships as well as nurturing, supportive learning environments."

McPhail emphasizes research showing diversity efforts make good economic sense. For instance, a 2009 McKinsey & Co. report stated that closing the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance could have increased the gross domestic product about $300 billion?$500 billion in one year.

According to the report, The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools, the trend's magnitude will only continue to increase as blacks and Latinos become a larger proportion of the population and workforce. "Put differently," it notes, "the persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession."

Not to mention the oft-repeated mantra that a diversity of perspectives makes for more innovative solutions to engineering problems, which are the world's grand challenges.

In the words of FIU's Dean Mirmiran, "broadening participation is not a feel-good idealistic goal but rather a necessity for the good of the country. It is not an affirmative action but the only viable action."

Learn more at www.shpe.org, www.nacme.org, and www.greatmindsinstem.org.