Great Minds in STEM conference focuses on the future
The theme is ACT!: Advancing the Culture of Technology
By Dan Calabrese
When crowds gather for the Great Minds in STEM annual conference and Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corp (GMiS/HENAAC) event in Florida this fall, the focus will be not on a particular skill or career path, but on the development of a culture that leads young people to success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Conference organizers note that many young Latinos have never had role models to provide an example of a successful career in STEM. That means too many bright kids never think about trying for careers in the field.
Setting the stage to change that mindset is the prime goal of this year's event. "Advancing the culture of technology" will be the theme when the conference convenes October 6-8 in Lake Buena Vista, FL.
Of course the conference will include many of the familiar events and activities long-time participants have come to expect, including a sizeable list of awards and recognitions presented over the course of the conference.
Some awards are presented at the Department of Defense recognition luncheon, where top Hispanic military cadets and ROTC university students are applauded and Viva! Technology competition prize winners are announced.
The STEM award winners tribute breakfast recognizes other technology pros with awards in categories of diversity; community service; most promising engineer, grad and undergrad; most promising scientist, grad and undergrad; and education. And the gala awards show that closes the conference finishes off the list of top technology leaders.
The technical poster competition gives STEM students an opportunity to showcase their technical writing and research skills, and the student career fair lunch offers companies a chance to showcase the opportunities they have for students preparing to enter their fields.
And of course the conference will include the College Bowl, a three-day event in which teams of college students meet engineering challenges, coached and judged by industry and government representatives. It's a serious competition, but a lot of fun, too.
Exciting a generation
Ray Mellado, president and CEO of Great Minds in STEM, notes that these events all promote the broad theme of introducing students early to a culture that breeds success in their pursuit of technology careers.
"We're trying to excite a whole generation of people under the age of eighteen," Mellado says. "If you look at the 2010 census, Hispanics are a huge percentage of the population under eighteen.
"Getting prepared to go into an engineering and science degree program is more than just taking classes," Mellado stresses. "It's understanding that you'll be pursuing the rigorous academic preparation to take on the technological challenges of our country."
Focus on four
Mellado explains that this year's conference will focus on four goals. The first is boosting the understanding among parents and grandparents of the importance of math and science in kids' education.
"The vast majority of the parents and grandparents of these students probably never had the opportunity to do well in math and science," Mellado says. "If they never had that chance they tend to assume their kids would not do well, either. And that's a barrier that has to be changed!"
Second is improving the training of elementary school teachers. "Elementary school teachers, especially those who work in the underserved populations we look at around the country, must understand that math and science have to be part of an everyday curriculum from the primary grades forward," Mellado says.
Third, "Our children must understand that they can achieve greatness in this area."
Fourth is creating an effective community of professionals to work together toward these goals. Mellado is passionate about using the conference to underscore its theme of facilitating such a community. "Now that we have twenty-three years of HENAAC winners, how do we identify this work to reach out and be part of the solution to this issue?" Mellado asks.
World's greatest database
If any single organization and conference can help to bring about this kind of change, Mellado believes that Great Minds in STEM is the one to do it.
"I think over the past twenty-three years we have developed the world's greatest database for outstanding Hispanics in technology," Mellado says. Reaching out to these techies and bringing them together in the events and activities of the HENAAC conference can provide the role models young people need.
The conference itself is a stimulating experience for participants, but, Mellado explains, it's even more important as a way to generate ongoing excitement about STEM education. "Our outreach programs throughout the year build on the events of the conference," he notes.
STEM-Up makes progress
GMiS reports continued progress on those outreach initiatives.
STEM-Up is a partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to encourage achievement in technical subjects. The current effort is aimed at young people in the Boyle Heights community of East Los Angeles, CA.
The Boyle Heights population of more than 80,000 consists largely of working-class Latinos. STEM-Up works through local schools at every level. The Los Angeles College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology at California State University is the lead higher-education institution in the effort.
Monica Villafana, senior manager for contracts and grants at GMiS, reports that the Boyle Heights STEM-Up effort includes twelve elementary schools, three middle schools, one K-8-span school and two high schools.
Viva! Technology encourages interest
On a broader scale, GMiS works to engage inner-city and rural students, teachers and parents through Viva! Technology, which offers schools a self-contained package of culturally relevant activities to encourage interest in STEM careers.
This year schools in seventeen states and the District of Columbia were involved with Viva! Technology; since its inception in 2001, some 63,000 people have been reached through the initiative.
Students typically participate in ten to twenty weeks of the Viva! program. They enjoy team challenges, direct interaction with college students in STEM fields, and conversations with leading engineers, technologists, scientists and math pros.
Reservation deadline for the HENAAC conference is September 9. Call Great Minds in STEM at 323-262-0997 or visit www.greatmindsinstem.org/henaac/conference.
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