Obstacles Impacting Latino Representation in Science and Engineering

Charles E. Vela
Executive Director

Hispanic Americans, as well as members of other minority groups, are not participating in the fields of engineering, math, and science in numbers that are commensurate with their representation in our society. Presently, Hispanic Americans constitute 12 percent of the population. Yet Hispanic Americans represent less than three percent of the engineering and scientific community in the United States. In spite of this under-representation, Hispanic American students are not receiving sufficient educational opportunities and resources, nor the academic stimuli necessary for their advancement in the fields of engineering, science and mathematics.

Only 60% of the Hispanic American students graduate from high school. Of these, only 45% enroll as freshman in institutions of higher education. One third of the Latino freshman class enters four-year institutions. Only 35% percent of Latinos entering four-year institutions select science and engineering majors. That is, only 3.15% of college-freshman-age Hispanic Americans enters science and engineering programs at four-year institutions.

This percentage disparity denies our nation of an important pool of human talent in fields that are key to our global competitiveness, national security, and the overall well being of our nation.
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Obstacles for Hispanic Americans in Science and Technology Achievement
Some of the factors contributing to the low representation of Hispanics, as well as other under-represented minorities, in the fields of science and engineering are:

Poor science and mathematics preparation from the early levels through high school
Frequently, schools with the highest concentration of Hispanics lack the faculty and material resources for strong science and mathematics programs. The necessary stimuli and mentoring are also generally absent in high schools at the critical time when students start developing the scientific and mathematical knowledge base and confidence required to enter a college program in a science related field. Furthermore, very few colleges and universities have programs to alleviate this situation.

Many Latinos entering institutions of higher education have an academic handicap and are often placed in non-stimulating remedial math and science courses with a sink-or-swim philosophy, which effectively discourages many students from pursuing science, engineering and technical degrees.

CAHSEE academically prepares students to successfully compete for entrance into four-year institutions. STEM Institute students are counseled to enroll in science, math and technology classes at their schools. As a result, all CAHSEE students graduate from high school having completed advanced math, science and, often, English courses.

Lack of academically intensive summer programs
Most summer programs geared toward Latino and other under-represented groups are of re-medial nature or stay-off-the-street focus. Those geared towards science and technology focus on 'hands-on' motivational activities. While such activities motivate students to pursue college careers in science and engineering, they do not prepare them to enter and succeed in four-year institutions. Motivated students often begin their undergraduate studies with inadequate preparation for required university coursework in mathematics and science. As a result, there is a very high level of attrition among Hispanic Americans enrolled in science and engineering programs and universities in general.

CAHSEE excels in providing academically intensive courses during the summer. Starting in the sixth grade, students are exposed to college level courses in math, science and engineering. By the time CAHSEE students graduate from high school, they have the maturity and academic capacity of college sophomores, facilitating success in college and allowing them to take leadership positions at their universities.

In general, there is a very high level of attrition of minority students and females—of all ethnic backgrounds—from science and engineering programs. This situation does not apply to CAHSEE students, both male and female.

Lack of access to summer internships for high school students
Experience has demonstrated that participation in summer internships is critical to fully prepare students to enter science and engineering careers. Yet, internship opportunities are limited, and generally, Latino students are either unaware or unprepared to participate in science and engineering summer internship programs. Thus, the de-facto exclusion of these students from challenging and exciting technical and research experience in real world applications undermines their chances of selecting science and engineering majors.

CAHSEE has yet to develop an internship program. However, several of our alumni have participated in research at National Institutes of Health, the federally funded David Taylor Research Center, and other institutions. These students are often at the top of their college class and hold leadership roles in student organizations. All intend to continue or have continued toward advanced degrees.

Predominantly low economic status of Hispanics
Traditionally, intense pressures to abandon the pursuit of a higher education for gainful employment prior to or immediately after graduation from high school are associated with the low socio-economic status of Hispanics. Some students who eventually pursue a higher education often must work to support themselves and their families. This situation is very pernicious for students seeking science and engineering degrees, which demand total commitment and concentration, prolonging the time necessary to complete their studies and raising the probability of withdrawal from school before degree completion.

Latino students with a strong academic background entering science and engineering schools at four-year universities are often better prepared to cope with economic handicaps. All CAHSEE alumni attend four-year higher education institutions. Parents and students are counseled how to best cope with economic disadvantages. Students are assisted in the financial aid and merit scholarships process.

CAHSEE emphasizes the value and rewards of a science or engineering education from the first moment students come in contact with the organization. By the time a student enters college, his/her academic success has become a family endeavor. Excelling and completing college in four to five years constitute a personal commitment and a civic duty of the student, and the student becomes a source of pride for the family.

Cultural patterns vs. academic goals
Cultural patterns and academic goals are frequently in conflict. Hispanic students enrolled in science programs represent, for the most part, the first generation in their family to attend a college or university. Hispanic parents are more likely to have lower education levels and may not fully understand the amount of emotional, academic, and financial support their daughter or son requires from them. Many students who attend college or university continue to live at home in crowded environments that are not conducive to the levels of concentration required to study for university courses, much less engineering and science subjects. Many continue to shoulder family and job responsibilities in addition to studying for classes.

Many parents do not allow their daughters to go away to college. This gender-based sheltering often inhibits them from attending colleges and universities outside their local community or from living on-campus. While at home, females are often not allowed to remain on college campuses into the late evening hours even if it is for studying or participating in enrichment activities. Often, they continue to assist their mothers with domestic chores.

CAHSEE starts preparing the parents early in their student's educational pipeline. Their awareness of educational opportunities beyond their immediate environs has contributed to increase the number of students, including females, moving away to attend college. One student, for example, has entered the West Point Military Academy this fall—with the full support of her family.

Insufficient Hispanic professors, academic counselors and other university staff
Given the small number of Hispanic science and engineering faculty and staff in higher education, students do not have access to individuals who have experienced and overcome similar barriers to achieve science based degrees, nor do they interact with individuals of similar backgrounds who can serve as role models and advisors who can share experiences and strategies to overcome socio-cultural-economic handicaps, and provide advice on how to best utilize the resources at universities.

Often students pursue their college education without proper involvement with the science or engineering department and its faculty. Thus, their awareness and access to on campus teaching assistantships and research opportunities during the academic year, and off and on campus internships during the summer are limited.

CAHSEE advises and prepares the students to become involved with their departments and faculty. CAHSEE's Executive Director, Charles Vela, its Vice President, Joseph Barba, and its Associate Director, Ivan Favila, all accomplished academics and research engineers, often take the role of mentors for the STEM Institute alumni and YEP/YESP Fellows.
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CAHSEE's Commitment
Individually, these factors are strong deterrents to the attainment of science or technology based degrees. Together, they constitute a powerful force that keeps many Hispanic students and other underrepresented minorities out of challenging engineering and science-based undergraduate or graduate programs. CAHSEE’s mission is to effectively assist the students in overcoming all of such obstacles. To achieve this goal CAHSEE has had the long-term commitment of NASA, The George Washington University, The City University of New York, The University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as other Federal Agencies and academic institutions.
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  Copyright Center for the Advancement of Hispanic in Science And Engineering Education 2003
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