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Building a Latino Wave in STEM

07/29/2016 10:41AM | 3487 views

The Hispanic community is under-represented in STEM majors and fields.:

The Latino population in the U.S. is growing quickly, but their demographic makes up less than 10 percent of the science, technology, engineering and math workforce.

Part of this is because only about two-thirds of Latino students nationwide have access to advanced math and science offerings in school, and many students and families are not aware of the opportunities available for them in STEM.

Colleges and businesses are trying to change these outcomes through scholarships, recruitment programs, academic activities, mentorship and internships. Some of these groups were represented Thursday at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference in Baltimore, at a breakout session titled "Building a Latino Wave in STEM." Participants addressed barriers and solutions to reaching the Latino population. Deborah Santiago, chief operating officer and vice president for policy at Excelencia in Education, moderated the discussion.

She summed up the landscape: "When we look at Latinos and where they are in STEM they are more likely to be enrolled at the certificate or associate programs. They are working in the service industry and not making incomes you would expect."

Alejandra Ceja, executive director for the White House's initiative on educational excellence for Hispanics, said at the session that progress had been made, including reducing the high-school dropout rate and having more students enrolled in college. The next step, she said, was to focus on the transition from graduation to college.

The White House's initiative has set a goal to recruit 100,000 Latino teachers in STEM fields, is focusing on middle school students and on giving high school students scholarships, and is working with emerging communities in the South.

The biggest challenge, she said, is getting people to talk about STEM in early learning. "We have done a lot of work under this administration to talk about the importance of early learning," she said. "We have to start talking about STEM education at a young age." At many schools, she said, when students say they want to pursue medicine, for instance, their schools will not have the full range of courses to help students get to that point.

Anna Park, chief executive officer for Great Minds in STEM, said Park said the biggest problem was that universities and workplaces were not recruiting enough from community colleges. "We need to improve that collaboration," she said.

One program that is helpful is allowing students to go away for a weekend to colleges for STEM-related competitions, as it helps them get used to being on campuses.

She also discussed the diversity within the Latino community. "In the Latino community we have individuals who have parents who are Ph.D.s, we have parents who recently immigrated, and we have parents with a third-grade education," she said.

Lanaea Featherstone, president for the William and Lanaea C. Featherstone Foundation, expanded on that point. "The community is vast, and there are so many different levels," she said. In their home countries, many immigrants are professional but then when they come to the U.S. they cannot attain jobs in the same field. "That is an inequity we need to address," she said.

The Foundation has helped connect students to the library, and many reported they were able to go there for the first time. "It's a place you can take your kids to discover," she said.

One of the most important steps to take was to empower young people, she said. "That is something that is simple and that we can all do. You need to continually tell people that they can do it."

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