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Society news

Great Minds in STEM annual awards event honors Hispanic tech pros

STEM education initiatives are moving forward

An executive panel looks to the mainstream media to promote STEM careers

The advocacy organization Great Minds in STEM presented the twenty-fourth Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC) in Orlando, Florida this fall. Along with the awards events, Great Minds staged a three-day conference and career fair.

The organization's aims include support of STEM education, particularly for underrepresented minorities; broadening the awareness of STEM careers among underrepresented minority students and their extended families; and recognizing the achievements of Hispanics and other minorities in STEM.

Viva! Technology and STEM-Up support kids
All three parts of the Great Minds mission were well represented at the annual conference. A busy session with students from four local high schools used the organization's Viva! Technology model to engage young people in real engineering projects. The Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) sponsored the sessions, and students from the University of Central Florida, the Florida Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and California State University-LA helped out.

This year's challenge was to build a working catapult from a kit of materials. Teams of participants had a limited amount of time to build and test two prototypes. At the end of the session, the teams competed to see which prototype could hurl a beanbag the farthest.

The event wound up with a lively quiz game that tested students' knowledge of basic engineering concepts.

STEM-Up looks at expansion
The STEM-Up initiative is a multi-tier STEM awareness and education "intervention" that involves schools, families, universities, government entities and corporations in a single neighborhood to boost the number of students who are successful in STEM areas. The program's pilot implementation, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, is now in its third year.

The program is funded in part by the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead DoD agency for STEM-Up and an active participant. Civilian and uniformed Army Corps members help with both administration and hands-on mentoring. The recently appointed commanding general of the Corps, Lieutenant General Thomas P. Bostick, attended the annual forum where STEM-Up board members and administrators report on progress. "The Corps is all in with STEM. It's very important to us," Bostick told the forum members.

With government or corporate support, Great Minds hopes to expand the program to several new cities in the coming years. Although plans are not final, Houston, New Orleans, Fort Worth and Galveston have been mentioned.

Broadening awareness
A senior executive panel is a traditional part of each Great Minds national conference. This year the panel was hosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and chaired by Dr Dan Arvizu, director of the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab and current chair of the National Science Board. He opened the panel by noting that "we have a crisis in STEM education."

The panel included members from government, industry and academia, but this year saw representation from a new quarter: the popular media. Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News & World Report, was a panel participant, and talked about the need to convince the general public of the importance of STEM education and the attraction of STEM careers. Panel participants agreed that it's essential to reach a broader audience: to "take the conversation from the conference table to the kitchen table," said Ray Mellado, president and CEO of Great Minds in STEM.

Cummins and the Lego engine
Most U.S. corporations are acutely aware of the need to excite young students about technical careers as early as middle school. Engine and power generation equipment maker Cummins (www.cummins.com) has devised its own program to expose youngsters to the joys of completing a successful engineering project. Using custom-made Lego kits, Cummins execs and scholarship recipients spent an evening with students from two area middle schools. The students, working in teams, constructed the elements of a detailed replica of its new QSK95 diesel engine. At the end of the evening, the elements were assembled into a four-foot-long structure, and exhibited in Cummins' booth at the conference career fair.

Networking and moving ahead
The conference is an ideal venue for networking and catching up with corporate representatives. Diversity/Careers sales and editorial staff chatted with folks from General Motors, Raytheon and IBM, among many others. They congratulated Hispanic Engineer of the Year Dr Steven Castillo, manager of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems engineering & decision support group at Sandia National Laboratories.

Editor Kate Colborn had an interesting discussion with Col Paul Webber, director of the Army's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), where STEM and diversity are both big concerns. And she was pleased to meet Dr Jarris L. Taylor, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for strategic diversity integration, and a member of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs. Diversity on both the uniformed and civilian sides of the Air Force is his focus.

The next Great Minds in STEM HENAAC event is from October 3 to 5, 2013, in New Orleans, LA.

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