Children are born naturally curious. They ask questions about why things exist, how things work, what things do. That sense of wonder doesn't end at any particular age. As a teenager living near the Panama Canal, I drew regular inspiration from one of history's major engineering feats. Throughout my high school career, I observed the completion of the Centennial Bridge -- the Canal's second -- and by graduation, my family was one of thousands benefitting from the increased access to the countryside. Witnessing the completion of such a major project reinforced my interest in math and science and ultimately engineering.
My curiosity and interests weren't unusual for a Hispanic student, but statistically, far fewer minority children pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Of the practicing engineers and scientists in the U.S., a mere four percent of engineers are Hispanic. With more than 53 million people of Hispanic descent living in the U.S., there is a lack of diversity in the STEM fields -- even at a time when the U.S. is facing a shortage of technical talent.
Studies show that Latino children express the same interest and excitement about becoming an engineer, or entering a STEM field, as their peers do. Nevertheless, they -- for lack of support, role models or funding -- fail to pursue it as a viable career path, or they give up on their dreams once on the path.
The question remains: How do we address this issue?
For me, I believe a big part of the burden falls on practicing engineers. Teachers and parents certainly have a major influence on the decisions students make, and mine were no exception. But those of us in the field -- those of us applying the knowledge gained from our STEM education -- need to help introduce the next generation to the possibilities that come with our exciting line of work. We can't rely on chance or expect our projects and their impact on society to speak for us.
We need to reward interest, desire and skill by ensuring that Latino students have access to the right educational opportunities and have mentors in the field. To do so, engineers need to work directly with teachers. We need to prepare these young people to compete in growing STEM fields by providing their teachers and parents with access to engineers who can expose students to all the fields have to offer. We need to replace barriers to success with the resources necessary to ensure teachers and parents have access to engineers and enough knowledge about the field to encourage students -- especially minority students -- to pursue engineering.
For too long, we have assumed students who are interested in STEM would end up in the right careers, when in actuality, engineers need to teach the next generation more about what we do. Engineers -- myself included -- need to be role models and provide resources to assist students as they explore the many possibilities that come with a career in engineering. The students already have the curiosity. We just need to help them apply it.
Through the support of ExxonMobil, Be An Engineer is a multi-faceted initiative seeking to inspire the next generation of engineers. The program aims to highlight the meaningful contributions that engineers make to the world, as well provide resources to assist young people interested in pursuing the profession.