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December 2011/January 2012

Diversity/Careers December 2011/January 2012 Issue




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Great Minds in STEM stages a lively HENAAC in Florida

Students and professionals made connections & had fun

"Advancing the culture of technology" was this year's conference theme


Back in 2010 Jethsibeth Palencia went to the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) in Orlando, FL. The conference, put on by Great Minds in STEM (GMiS: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) includes lots of opportunities for contact with major corporations and many of them are in a hiring mode. Palencia connected with IBM and accepted a job offer, and when she came back to Orlando for the 2011 conference this past October it was as an IBM employee. "I'm a product of the conference!" she says.

That kind of networking underlies almost all the activities of the yearly national conference. HENAAC brings together Hispanic technical pros, current and aspiring, for four days of awards and recognitions, plus a College Bowl competition and a series of workshops, panels and presentations for students and professionals. This year's conference theme was "advancing the culture of technology." Parts of the program suggested a variety of exciting ways to work toward that goal.

STEM-Up moves ahead
The GMiS STEM-Up program has finished its second year of full operation, and the conference provided an opportunity for corporate and government participants to hear about progress and plans. STEM-Up is a pilot STEM awareness and education program that targets an entire community: K-12 students, parents and other community members, plus businesses and local universities. Its object is to increase students' awareness, enthusiasm and proficiency in STEM disciplines.

The program is funded by a grant from the Department of Defense and administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, an area with significant economic and educational challenges, is the pilot site. The grant extends through the 2012-13 school year.

Captain Ken Barrett, U.S. Navy, is deputy director of the office of diversity management and EO for the office of personnel and readiness of the U.S. undersecretary of defense. He spoke about STEM-Up at a conference luncheon, noting that some 80 percent of participating students now say they want or plan to attend college.

"I commend GMiS for promoting diversity in STEM," says Barrett. "There are thousands of cyber careers in every branch of the military, and a STEM background is essential for success in that area."

A national security issue
Diversity in the STEM workforce is "a national security issue." Barrett told Diversity/ Careers editor Kate Colborn. Until he was appointed to his current post early in 2011 Barrett headed the Navy's diversity efforts. His job now, he says, is to make sure every branch of the military is doing all it can to attract and support members who are proficient in all areas of technology. In today's world, that means creating a pool of women and people of color who are excited by science and engineering. Participation in events like HENAAC's GMiS is an important part of those efforts, Barrett says.

At luncheons, dinners, panels and forums, executives of GMiS-supporting organizations echoed Barrett's concerns. One of them was Kim Adams, HR VP at Lockheed Martin, a major conference sponsor. "GMiS is an outcome, not an acronym," she told the crowd at an awards luncheon.

Women leaders speak out
A panel of female Hispanic leaders in government and industry brought their own perspectives to the challenges facing Hispanic women in technical roles.

Dr Ellen Ochoa, deputy director of NASA's Johnson Space Center and a former astronaut, found early in her college career that faculty didn't have very high expectations for women students. "You have to make your own expectations," she said.

Maria Ruess, now a VP at Lockheed Martin, recalled when she was asked by a professor, "Did you come here to get a degree or a husband?"

Patricia Romero, a general manager at IBM, noted that to become a strong leader you must learn to trust the people who work for you.

All three panelists commented that there are many styles of leadership, and many ways to motivate a team of people. All three agreed that it is possible to move into a high position without losing your identity, although Ochoa remarked that "What makes you 'you' can be both a strength and a weakness."

All three also commented on the value of mentors and sponsors, and the challenges of balancing work and family. Romero addressed the issue when her three children were small by taking them, and her mother, along on business trips. Ruess remarked that "there's no such thing as real balance. Set priorities you can manage, but realize you will give up some things."

Action needed
At a senior executive forum, participants from Northrop Grumman, IBM, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), NASA, Chrysler, Sandia Laboratories, RDECOM, the Marines, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and more talked about their organizations' efforts to bolster the STEM workforce and the work that remains to be done.

Activities for all
GMiS activities range from nationwide summer teacher workshops for K-12 faculty to scholarships and community-based programs. "We need to identify the impediments and the opportunities," said Frank Flores, VP for the Northrop Grumman Aerospace strike and surveillance unit.

Dr Dan Arvizu, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, CO) and a member of the National Science Board, pointed out that the U.S. Department of Energy needs a vast pool of scientists and engineers, and must connect with the "untapped educational resource" of minority youth to fill its future positions. "We do transformational research," he explained, and a robust and diverse workforce is as essential to those efforts as it is in the military.

Marine leadership
The U.S. Marines offered a select leadership development seminar to area college students and conference attendees, and followed it up with a reception before the major awards gala. Major General Angie Salinas is the first woman to command a Marine Recruitment Depot, the first Hispanic female to become a Marine general officer, the first Hispanic female and only the sixth female in the Marine Corps to reach the rank of brigadier general. She spoke about her journey from high-school dropout to Marine general, and the exciting technical work going on in today's Marine Corps.

Viva! Technology
The conference gives local high school students a chance to participate in parts of HENAAC's Viva! Technology, a program that brings technology awareness activities to K-12 classes in more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia. This year, kids from local high schools got to build emergency shelters from discarded newspapers.

Mentors from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) were on hand as coaches and mentors and Major General Nick Justice, RDECOM commander, made a surprise visit to help out.

HENAAC has been held every year since 1989. The 2012 conference will return to Orlando from October 11 to 13. For more information, check out www.greatmindsinstem.org.

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