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Professionals Aid Students on Path to Science Careers

June 15, 1989|ROSANNE KEYNAN | Keynan is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

As a high school student in Whittier just a few years ago, Patricia Cabrera didn't know what an electrical engineer did. Now, in less than two years she will probably be working as one.

Cabrera's introduction to engineering as a career choice was provided by an educational "intervention" program--Math, Engineering, Science Achievement, or MESA--aimed at minority junior high and high school students.

"MESA threw the word engineering at me for the first time," said Cabrera, now a junior at UC Irvine.

Her success in college was facilitated by another organization--the Society of Mexican-Americans in Engineering and Science. MAES, as the society is known, has provided Cabrera with tutoring, peer support, a scholarship and contact with working professionals.

A handful of organizations like these have been helpful in changing the odds for young Latinos in science. And, according to a national task force, the odds must change dramatically if the United States is to stay competitive in the world economy.

A publication by the Task Force on Women, Minorities and the Handicapped in Science and Technology reports that Latinos represent only 2% of all employed scientists and engineers in this country. They hold just 1% of all doctorates in those fields, even though they make up 9% of the nation's population and are its fastest growing minority group.

These figures bode ill for all Americans, says the 1988 report, entitled "Changing America: The New Face of Science and Engineering." It points out that the under-representation of Latinos and other minorities in the sciences, once considered a matter of inequity, is now a threat to national competitiveness.

If improving science education is adopted as an urgent national priority, as the report recommends, intervention programs like the ones that benefited Cabrera may serve as models for larger programs.

"Just look at what these groups have managed to do on a shoestring," said Jaime Oaxaca, vice president of Northrop Corp. and co-chair of the task force that was established by Congress in 1987 to develop a long-range plan for broadening participation in science and engineering.

The groups Oaxaca refers to--which the report says are under-funded and small--have forged partnerships among schools, universities and industry to identify talent, offer support services and serve as a network for professional contacts.

All of the organizations cooperate with each other. Each stresses recruitment and retention of students at various academic levels. Nowhere are they more successful than in California, which is cited as a model by Oaxaca and other experts in the field.

Since 1982, the state has provided $2.1 million a year to the MESA program, which was created in Northern California in 1970 by a high school math teacher and an engineering professor who were alarmed at the rate of attrition among minority students from college engineering programs. Corporations and private foundations contribute $1 million a year and volunteer services to the program in California.

According to Deputy Director Richard Santee, math and science teachers at 200 junior and senior high schools across the state volunteer as MESA advisers, encouraging minority students to take the challenging classes that will qualify them for college studies.

Full-time MESA staff members at 19 college campuses across the state provide college students as tutors and mentors to their younger counterparts. They also set up Saturday enrichment programs.

MESA, now a national organization, awards prizes--calculators, book bags, T-shirts--for participation in its programs. Cash awards are given for good grades and high Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.

Cabrera says these encouraged her. "I won a $50 incentive award every time it was offered. I thought, 'I'm just in high school and already making money,' " she said.

Five years ago, MESA established its university-level program, the Minority Engineering Program (MEP), to recruit and retain students in engineering bachelors degree programs.

MEP emphasizes tutoring and extracurricular workshops for underclassmen; upper-division students are prepared for transition into a professional role through summer internships and other contact with engineers.

Santee reports that the dropout rate of MEP undergraduates from engineering programs is two to three times lower than the standard dropout rate--75%--for minority engineering students not involved with the program.

Two other national organizations with strong bases in California are MAES and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). Both have professional and student chapters. The two societies provide scholarships, tutoring and mentoring. Both hold national conferences and job fairs.

The centerpiece of the MAES program, according to Oscar Cano, a TRW ground-systems manager and board chairman of the society, is its annual symposium and a $2,000 padrino (mentor) scholarship, presented by an outstanding scientist.

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