By Gloria Angelina Castillo
EGP Staff Writer
An initiative to arm Latino students with skills to lead the country and set the pace for other young people in the world of technology was launched in Boyle Heights on Monday.
STEM-Up, a pilot program funded by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), is the first of it’s kind in the nation, and aims to transform the low-income Latino community — with an estimated 35 to 50 percent high school drop-out rate in the country’s second largest school district — to become a future pool of highly skilled labor in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Boyle Heights has the talent and the children to take the future jobs of this country, said Ray Mellado, Chair and CEO of the nonprofit HENAAC, (formerly known as the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation). STEM-Up is an HENAAC initiative.
The program aims to inspire and motivate students to go into careers that—contrary to popular belief—are both fun and well-paid, said STEM-Up Director of Education Programs Monica Villafaña.
STEM-Up has spent the last year promoting itself in the community and creating alliances with community, private and public organizations. Over the next four years, STEM-Up staff plan to be highly visible at school and community events like science fairs, career fairs, parades and cultural festivals.
STEM-Up is a multi-faceted program that includes instructional materials that are being added to the curriculum at 16 participating elementary schools and two middle schools that feed into Roosevelt High and the soon-to-open Mendez High School.
The program also includes interactive community and parent workshops to provide information and tools that can used at home to encourage children to explore and develop skills needed in STEM fields.
Los Angeles Councilmember Jose Huizar (CD-14) praised the project and said Boyle Heights students will have access to professional mentors and internships.
“A lot of kids drop out because they’re studying something they’re not interested in, or they don’t see how what they’re learning now relates to what they want to do later in life,” said Huizar, recalling his own experience with algebra as a freshman in high school. STEM-Up will change that, he implied.
Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Monica Garcia (District-5) said the timing for the program could not be better. The LAUSD is set to implement millions of dollars in budget cuts that will increase class sizes throughout school district and threaten existing academic enrichment programs.
At a local level, STEM-Up will help reduce the dropout rate and improve the quality of education students receive. On a larger scale, the program will address two of the most important public policy issues facing this country—national security and public education—Huizar said.
“If you look at the places where most of our young people are being educated, it is in places like Boyle Heights—large urban public systems that this country depends on for the future of its workforce. It’s not only a moral issue, it is an economic issue, it’s a national security issue,” he said.
Dr. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, President California State University, East Bay Chair for the Engineering Initiative, said Boyle Heights’ children successfully gaining education in STEM fields is vital to the country.
“Today we face a global economic crisis that threatens our collective futures. The growth of the US Gross Domestic Product will depend on our capacity to provide a workforce that will be able to compete successfully in the knowledge-based global marketplace,” said Qayoumi.
It is estimated that roughly half of the U.S.’s economic growth is linked to innovation and technology, and the trend is also reflected in California’s economic growth, said Qayoumi. But studies have shown that the U.S. and California fall behind in academic competitiveness and a strong foundation in STEM skills are vital for a thriving economy in the future.
Millions of Latino and African-American college educated workers in the STEM fields could contribute to the economic security of the nation’s future, said Qayoumi, citing a study from the Louis Stokes Institute.
“Our future course is clear. The nation’s capacity to innovate for economic growth and the ability for workers to [compete] in the global economy depends on a broad foundation of math and science learning as well as preserving our democracy and social contracts… that lies in the heart of the American dream,” said Qayoumi adding that it keeps jobs in the country.
STEM-Up is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and is administered by the Los Angeles Army Corps of Engineers, however the program is not a military recruitment effort, said Clarence Johnson, principal director of the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the DoD, and Col. Thomas H. Magness IV with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Wearing army fatigues, Col. Magness, President of Society of American Military Engineers (SAME), told EGP that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is made up mostly of civilians.
“[National Security does] not necessarily entail putting on a uniform, we need scientists and engineers in the Department of Defense,” said Magness.
Johnson told EGP that two or three percent of DoD engineers are Hispanic and that there is a lot of potential in the community that needs to be tapped.
“This is not a recruiting program, it’s a public effort to increase the pipeline [of highly skilled workers] in the market,” Johnson told EGP.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds facilities for military missions, maintains veteran’s facilities, works on large infrastructure projects that benefit civilians, but also has sustainable engineering and alternative energy projects, Magness added.
Magness said 28 college interns from Los Angeles were hired just last year and the department’s continued participation will mean opportunities for scholarships and educational camps for high school students. They will also provide mentors, science fair judges and role models.
U.S. Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-34) expressed her commitment to STEM-Up by saying she would help secure funding through the House Appropriations Committee.
STEM-Up will help the children of Boyle Heights open their eyes to the opportunities in the fields and give them support to realize their dreams, she said.
“Parents in this community want their children to succeed, they want them to be successful and they want to be able to have the tools to help them succeed and be educated,” the Congresswoman said referring to the program’s parent component.
Magness and others hope the program, an investment in Boyle Heights and America’s future, will yield measurable results in terms of quantity and quality.
“This is a pilot, until we understand what it really takes to make a measurable difference, we can’t reproduce it in other places,” Magness said.
“I truly believe that this community can be the model of the 21st century for how you transform urban communities into the technological future of our nation, for our national defense and security,” said CSULA Dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology, Dr. H. Keith Moo-Young.
“Key leaders are looking at this model here that we’re about to kick off in Boyle Heights to see if it’s transferable to other communities,” said Johnson.
“So Boyle Heights, you’re about to make history and others are watching and looking forward to your success.”
Schools participating in HENAAC are: First Street Elementary School, Second Street Elementary School, Breed St. Elementary School, Bridge Elementary School, Dena Elementary School, Euclid Elementary School, Evergreen Elementary School, Lorena Elementary School, Malabar Elementary School, Sheridan Elementary School, Soto Elementary School, Sunrise Elementary School, Utah Elementary School, Belvedere Middle School, Hollenbeck Middle School, Stevenson Middle School, Roosevelt High School, and Mendez High School (Opening Fall 2009).
Organizations also participating in STEM-UP are: Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative; Boyle Heights Technology Center; and Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.
For more information about STEM-Up visit the bilingual website at www.stemup.org.