Expanding Latino Student Access to STEM Careers

Latino students represent the fastest growing segment of American students, and their numbers enrolling in STEM fields like chemistry and engineering are growing as well—by 33 percent between 1995 and 2004. But they still remain disproportionately small compared to White students—and, even more troubling, Latino students are much more likely to drop out of these fields without earning a degree or certificate. Just 16 percent of Hispanic students who began college in 2004 as STEM majors earned a STEM degree by 2009, according to data from the Higher Education Research Institute.

And yet, this country desperately needs many more STEM graduates to match the growing job market in computer, high-tech engineering, and science and health fields. Science and engineering jobs are expected to grow at twice the rate of other jobs over the next five years, according to a recent report from STEM Connector, and this country already is falling behind. For every unemployed STEM worker in this country, there are twice as many unfilled STEM jobs, according to a recent study by Change the Equation. (With that in mind, it’s no surprise President Obama committed $3.1 billion this April to STEM education.)

Given the rapid, projected pace of growth in STEM career fields, and given the similar, demonstrated growth of the Latino student population, the obvious question to ask, as Forbes magazine did a few years ago, is: “Are Hispanics America’s Next Great STEM Innovators?”

In a chemistry lab at the University of Buffalo (UB), a campus of the State University of New York, the answer is clearly yes. Here, for nearly 20 years, chemistry professor Luis Colón has been inviting under-represented students, Hispanics, women, and others, to work in his research lab. “They come here, they see what research is all about, and it really helps to define their interest,” Colón said. “And what happens is they often decide to apply to our graduate programs. We’ve gone from zero Ph.D’s (earned by Hispanic students) to more than a dozen over the past 15 years.”

In the beginning, this was one man’s mission to diversify his classrooms and labs, often by recruiting students from Puerto Rico, Colón’s former home. Since then, it has become a university-wide effort, spreading from chemistry to other department, from Colón to his many supportive colleagues. Thanks to UB’s Institute for Strategic Enhancement for Educational Diversity (ISEED), which Colón co-directs with a pharmacology professor, more than a dozen Hispanic students are engaged this summer in UB engineering, chemistry, and biomedical labs.

Colón’s students will test an electro-kinetic pump through a grant that they won from NASA. (Colón is staying home—Houston’s high-flying, low-gravity environment doesn’t appeal much to his stomach…) Unlike a typical pump, the UB student pump doesn’t depend on mechanical pressure to move liquids. Instead it relies on a process called electro-osmosis, which helps to produce a much lighter, smaller, and less costly pump. For those reasons, it may be useful in space exploration. Other real-world applications may include the more efficient transportation of fuels.

Undergraduate students who can spend this kind of time in real research labs, asking questions and finding answers, are more likely to persist in their STEM majors, research has shown. Other key factors around persistence include mentoring from faculty and older students; participation in STEM-related student clubs; success in “gatekeeper” introductory classes; and, of course, students’ ability to access financial aid and pay the skyrocketing costs of college in the United States. It also helps greatly when students are prepared well in high school STEM programs like the ones called out by Obama during his 2013 State of the Union address.

Colón and his colleagues don’t have much control over the last two conditions—although they have successfully lobbied the university to provide more money to under-represented students earning graduate degrees at UB, and Colón has a colleague who is working with Buffalo-area high school teachers to develop effective STEM curriculum. At the same time, they are systemically tackling the others.

Their efforts include a summer “boot camp” for STEM-oriented students entering UB in the fall, and encouragement for those students to engage as early as possible in research. “Get immersed in it!” Colón enthused. Meanwhile, a pilot program in his department seeks to redesign lab courses so that they’re less about “following a recipe,” and more like real research: “The students should figure out how to attack a problem, and they should do it together,” he said.

Is it working? It seems to be: preliminary data shows a persistence rate among UB’s STEM students of nearly 60 percent, Colón said. But their work isn’t done. Colón looks at students struggling in first-year courses like calculus and chemistry and, like the researcher he is, sees more problems to be explored and more solutions to be tested and applied: “Our students today still need to develop their potential. As faculty, we have to help them develop.”

Their success isn’t just their own—it’ll be the nation’s as well.

Photo: University of Buffalo