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July 3, 2017

Event kindles Hispanic high school students’ interest in engineering

Written By: Pat DeFlorin

The population of Hispanic people in the United States is on the rise—yet of all the people who work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, the percentage of Hispanic people lies stagnant below 10 percent.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison student chapter of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE-UW) hopes to change that.

In April 2017, SHPE-UW spearheaded an annual event called Latinos Exploring Engineering Professions (LEEP) that brought students from Madison- and Milwaukee-area high schools to the UW-Madison College of Engineering to learn more about careers in engineering.

“The goal is to encourage students who typically wouldn’t see themselves pursuing engineering and show them the possibilities,” say Jose Renteria, SHPE-UW’s outreach coordinator.

Students from Carmen High School of Science and Technology, Alexander Hamilton High School, Riverside University High School, Madison East High School and Madison West High School attended the event. And, although all students were welcome, most of the students who attended the event were Hispanic, including second-generation United States citizens and first-generation college students.

Students of West Madison High School brainstorm ideas for constructing a short bridge
Students of West Madison High School brainstorm ideas for constructing a short bridge – an activity meant to demonstrate the collaborative and challenging tasks of engineering.

During the full-day event, attendees interacted with UW-Madison engineering students and faculty, participated in a hands-on bridge building workshop, and toured various engineering laboratories, including Abbott Lab, Huber Lab, Pfleger Lab, the Traffic Operations and Safety Lab and the Simulation Based Engineering Lab.

While Latinos Exploring Engineering Professions aimed to excite Hispanic high school students about engineering, it also aimed to show them that success in STEM is possible. In his keynote speech at the event, Victor Zavala, the Richard H. Soit assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering, aimed to dispel misconceptions that commonly deter underrepresented students from pursuing careers in engineering.

One of those is that math is hard and scary. “The moment you tell prospective students that engineering is math-based, they get afraid,” says Zavala. To diffuse math phobias, Zavala tries to show students how they already solve complicated mathematical problems every day without realizing it.

For example, when we schedule things, our brain naturally intuits the goals, constraints and logic that underlie our schedules. “When you arrange meetings and commitments, like puzzle pieces, you are implementing a scheduling algorithm—it’s complicated math,” says Zavala.

Such mathematical thinking is natural, and Zavala hopes that to encourage more underrepresented students to pursue engineering education by helping them to embrace math.

Zavala also strives to show students is that there are limitless possibilities in engineering and to introduce students to its breadth. When students think of engineering, he says, they often think of bridges or vehicles without realizing all that engineering encompasses such as polymers, solar energy, logistics and machine learning.

“Students often don’t have a clear picture of what a chemical engineer does, so I wanted to show them the scope of our profession and interactions with other engineering fields,” says Zavala.

In his keynote speech, Zavala highlighted ways in which people in various engineering disciplines come together to solve global issues such as energy and agricultural sustainability—and how students can get involved to make a difference.

By the end of the day, students at the Latinos Exploring Engineering Professions event were asking pointed questions about research, engineering careers and how they could prepare for a future in engineering.

“I would say that we definitely kindled curiosity in students, and also inspired those who already had some desire to enter the STEM field,” says Renteria.