Tapping the STEM Potential of Latinos

When it comes to innovations in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, the United States has had, over the past two centuries, the good fortune to be able to tap the brain power of its citizens—both native born and those who have immigrated here. Their invaluable contributions have sharpened America’s innovative edge to a fine point.

And although the United States is recognized as a global technological leader, there is heavy competition from other countries.

Every generation needs an infusion of fresh talent to take on those jobs that contribute to pushing the envelope of progress and innovation. The challenge for the United States is that there are more STEM jobs than there are qualified applicants.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates there will be 2.7 million new jobs expected in STEM sectors by 2018.  But the number of students graduating from related fields is nowhere near what it should be.  

What will it take to meet America’s requirements for preparing students and professionals to enter the STEM pipeline?

The STEM potential of Latinos

The publishers of LATINO magazine, along with the National Education Association, believe the answer is two-fold: Encouraging Latino students to enter STEM fields and preparing more educators to teach STEM subjects.

Latinos in America represent one in four students in the public school system.  According to the latest statistics, meeting the country’s science and math needs for the next 10 years will require 100,000 more engineers per year. Some simple math reveals that America should see 25,000 more Latino engineers represented in that figure.

To explore the possibilities for inviting greater Latino participation in STEM fields, LATINO magazine convened a conference in Washington, D.C.

The “Nuestro Futuro, the 2012 Latino Education Conference on STEM,” spotlighted a panel called “It Starts in the Classroom.” The panel centered on ensuring great public schools for every student through social justice advocacy, and NEA was front and center of this conversation.

So what does social justice advocacy have in common with the largest labor union in the country? It has been at the Association’s core since it was founded.

Nearly 100 years before the Civil Rights movement, Robert Campbell, an African American teacher from Philadelphia, was one of 43 educators who established what is now the NEA. The Association also elected its first woman president, Ella Flagg Young, decades before American women were give the right to vote.

NEA’s position is that ill-devised policies that prevent students from learning and educators from teaching drive the Association to advocate for the rights of students and educators alike, whatever the challenges.  

Today, Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the American population, standing at 50 million people. That number is expected to double by 2050. With this kind of growth come challenges that directly affect the Latino student population, such as immigration.

“As we talk about the broader picture and the need for 100,000 more engineers a year, none of that is possible if our children are being pulled out of school because parents are afraid of being deported,” said Alfredo Estrada, editor of LATINO magazine.

To help keep all students in school, NEA has come out fervently against anti-immigration policies and laws, such as Alabama’s House Bill 56, the harshest anti-immigration measure in recent U.S history. Part of the original law required public school officials—from elementary to high school—to determine a student’s immigration status. The law also mandated school districts to submit to state education officials yearly tallies on suspected undocumented immigrants.

Many parents who feared deportation pulled their children out of school.

“Education is the human and civil rights issue of our time, and it’s not the human and civil rights issue for some students. It’s the human and civil rights issue for all students,” said Rocío Inclán, director of NEA’s Human and Civil Rights department. “When an uncle or a sister is being deported and families have to move—that has an impact on teaching and learning; it has an impact on achievement; and it has an impact on you and the United States.”

NEA has also partnered with outside organizations that promote solutions to immigration reform, such as the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals.

NEA is working with United We Dream, a youth-run advocacy group, to hold application clinics at schools and community colleges to help undocumented students fill out the required paperwork. NEA is also training its members on how to work with DREAMers, young immigrant students who were brought to the United States as children.

Said NEA President Lily Eskelsen recently in an interview, “We’re telling [teachers] to use words like ‘might’ and ‘you want to look into,’” she says. “The worst thing in the world for us to do is to somehow have a family believe that they have been promised something like a path to citizenship.”

America’s prosperity is tied to innovation. By protecting the social justice rights of Latino students, educators have the ability to encourage more students to take STEM courses.

However, as the Latino population continues to grow so will the need to train educators in specific professional development programs.

Changing American landscape

During the conference, Rita Haecker, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said that preparing educators for the demographic shifts across the United States requires training that direct relates to Latino students.

“The majority of students entering [Texas] classrooms today are Hispanic,” said Haecker. “Two-thirds of the 1 million students that were added in the last 10 years were Hispanic students, and they will become the majority of people in the classrooms.”

Haecker explained that while Hispanic students are the majority, the teaching force is mostly non-Hispanic.

“The need for teacher preparation programs, mentor programs, and cultural diversity programs for all teachers is essential,” said Haecker.

Such teacher preparation programs include the NEA’s C.A.R.E. (Cultural, Abilities, Resilience, and Effort) Guide, which trains educators to connect to culturally and linguistically diverse students by connecting to students’ everyday experiences and integrating classroom learning with out-of-school experiences.

The guide also showcases ways to improve a teacher’s practice, such as designing lessons that require students to identify and describe another point of view, different factors, consequences, objectives, or priorities; and providing instruction that helps to increase the consciousness and valuing of differences and diversity through the study of historical, current, community, family, personal events, and literature.

NEA’s $500,000 commitment to STEM

President Obama has called for 100,000 STEM teachers to prepare students for the jobs of the future. NEA has responded with a $500,000 challenge grant that calls on leading business and technology companies and philanthropists to join the Association in working to expand a successful New Jersey Education Association program that helps increase the number of certified science and math teachers.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, a math teacher with more than 20 years of classroom experience, recently made the call to action on a webcast with education leaders across the country.

“We’re committed to preparing students to succeed in the worldwide economy, that’s why we’re working together to get additional qualified, caring, and committed math and science teachers into classrooms. Right now, there’s a severe shortage, especially in low-income communities, and that needs to change. But we cannot do it alone,” said Van Roekel.

America’s success is directly related to the quality of the U.S. education system. As a union of educators, NEA is putting its professional and financial support to work to help advance programs and initiatives that are proven effective. If America wants to retain its innovative edge, it will need to invest wisely and look forward to reaping the rich potential of its Latino students.