Engineering a Brighter Future for Minorities in STEM Careers

Through mentoring and teaching, these SCE engineers hope to improve the black, Hispanic shortfall in science, technology, engineering and math.

December 10, 2013 | By Paul Netter

It is very likely that the creators of the next Microsoft, Apple or Google will come from the disciplines of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

What is much more uncertain is whether they will be black or Hispanic, since these two groups are consistently under-represented in STEM education, a longtime driving force in U.S. economic growth.

Engineers like Southern California Edison’s (SCE) Blanca Solares and Tracy Tate are doing their part to change that by volunteering to teach and mentor minority students.

Solares and Tate are unique themselves in the STEM workforce, where Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks each account for only about 6 percent, said the Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration. The groups’ numbers do not align with their place in the overall workforce — 14 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

To compare, non-Hispanic whites are 68 percent of the overall workforce but hold 72 percent of STEM jobs and non-Hispanic Asians are 5 percent of the total workforce but have 14 percent of STEM jobs.

“I think you’ve got to reach them at a young age,” said Solares of minority STEM students. “I think there needs to be programs to encourage kids at 5, 6, 7 years of age to start exploring their inner mathematician, their inner scientist, their inner engineer.”

And once you reach them, Tate feels encouragement is crucial.

“I always teach the kids not to get discouraged. To me, that’s No. 1,” said Tate, whose first interest was architecture. “That’s the part where they need mentors, to encourage them to stay with it. I find a lot of students are good at math, but they’re not always encouraged. That’s what is really needed.”

More equality in education would help too, says the Commerce Department’s report. Regardless of race and Hispanic origin, the report says higher college graduation rates equal more workers with STEM jobs. The report suggests that equality in educational achievement would virtually eliminate demographic gaps in the STEM workforce.

Only one in three Hispanic or black student takes Advanced Placement math and only about 7,000 pass AP calculus annually, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

To help bridge those gaps, professionals like Solares and Tate present themselves as examples of what can be achieved while introducing kids to their field in interesting, accessible ways.

“I think it’s imperative that they have contact with a STEM professional,” said Solares, an engineer in Compliance & Quality who started at SCE 10 years ago as a nuclear engineer. “It’s a must-have.”

In her presentations, Solares avoids telling students what’s planned in order to promote spontaneity. She has asked students to build long, sturdy bridges, using paper, foil, Popsicle sticks or strings, and she has had them design devices to protect an egg from a second-floor fall using similar materials.

Solares says she is often rewarded with “very inventive designs,” which she rewards with prizes.

Tate, an engineer in Transmission/New Projects who has been at SCE 11 years, assists students from second grade through college, working with such groups as the National Society of Black Engineers and Young Black Scholars. She acknowledges obstacles but she never stresses them in her presentations.

“Obviously we lose a lot of our kids,” said Tate. “Maybe they feel out of place or that they can’t do it. But it’s just important to let them know from my perspective that if I can do it, you can too.”

And doing it could be profitable and secure, with STEM workers earning 26 percent more than non-STEM counterparts, said the Economics and Statistics Administration. The STEM workforce also is expected to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018 compared to 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM jobs.

President Obama has made improving STEM education a priority, and the Business and Industry STEM coalition wants the U.S. to double to 400,000 college graduates with STEM degrees by 2020.

The Edison Scholars Program contributes to those goals. And Scarlett Carrillo, an SCE engineer in Power System Control, is a big proponent of that program, having been an Edison scholar who now mentors students as she was herself.

“My No. 1 recommendation to all is to look for the opportunities,” said Carrillo. “Being mentored really helped me because it really allowed me to see what opportunities are out there. I learned about so many things that I never would have known if it wasn’t for networking with other professionals.                             

“I think if minority students had a support system, there would be a growing number of minorities in the STEM fields.”

Topics: People