15 Tips To Major And Succeed In STEM Careers

A January 2018 Pew Research Center study about minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields reported that while Latinos and Blacks compose 27% of the overall U.S. population, they only account for 16% of those employed in STEM occupations. Why are so many Latinos and Blacks underrepresented in these highly lucrative, rewarding and prestigious fields?

The answers are complicated including a lack of funding for many public schools with large minority populations, lack of scholarship money and lack of role models.

Furthermore, many Latinos enroll in college but fail to graduate, points out David Ortiz, senior vice president for Operations at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), based in San Antonio, Texas.

Many Latino students enter college not fully prepared to do the academic work. Many are products of struggling public school systems, haven’t mastered study skills or received sufficient academic counseling to steer them to the right courses, Ortiz suggests.

But the number of Latino who major in STEM is rising.  In 2008, for example, 7% of STEM majors with bachelor degrees were Hispanics and by 2018 that number rose to 12%, and continues to increase.

In fact, a February 2020 HACU study “Rebuilding Policy and Practice for STEM Education, New Hispanic Perspectives” recommends several strategies to encourage minority students to pursue STEM majors.

In this article, experts from HACU, a Latino chemistry professor who is also an academic dean and a Latina engineer and project manager, offer 14 tips for Latino students to major in science and math fields and get a jumpstart on a successful career.

Tip #1: Observe science on your own—not all learning happens in school

The HACU study encourages students to learn about science on their own, not just in school. Attending museums, aquariums, planetariums, and walking in the park observing nature can heighten scientific enthusiasm. Experiential learning can trigger an interest in academic pursuits.

HACU’s Ortiz says, “Familiarity breeds success.” He adds that for Latino students, “being introduced on your terms without someone providing bias is the core of learning can provide inspiration.”

Tip #2: Shadow a STEM professional

Ortiz encourages Latino students to learn about the life of STEM professionals by observing them in their work place to see how they carry out their professional duties. For example, he advises Latino students to ask if they could spend a day watching their family dentist at work. He encourages them to ask questions beyond how did you enter the field? What gives them job satisfaction? What’s their biggest challenge?

He also suggests asking a high school guidance counselor or science teacher if they could hook them up with someone else to shadow. Do they know a civil engineer who works at a state bridge authority, for example?

Tip #3: The earlier Latino students are exposed to science, the better

Positive exposure to scientific topics as early as elementary school sends positive messages, the HACU study reported. “One cannot aspire to be what one doesn’t know,” the report said. Learning about the natural world at an early stage triggers a zest for learning.

Tip #4: Prepare Latino students in middle-school for math and science

Students in middle school “need more intensive counseling about high school course selection in view of readiness for higher education,” urges the HACU report. Hence, students must be steered to take biology, chemistry and other science and math classes in high school to prepare them for college.

When Yvonne Garcia Thomas, an Austin, Texas-based vice president and project manager at Raba Kistner, a premier engineering and consulting firm, was in middle school in Houston, she showed an aptitude for math and science as a straight A student. That led to her attending a public high school with a math and science institute, where she took chemistry and other advanced classes and interned at Rice University working with a research scientist. “I was good at math and science and it peaked my interest,” she says, which put on a path toward a successful STEM career.

Tip #5: Take advanced math and science classes in high school

The HACU study urges high school students to study the highest level of math and science in high school including calculus, trigonometry, statistics and chemistry and computer science. Take advantage of Advanced Placement classes and high school classes that offer college credit to prepare for college. “The lack of preparation is the greatest barrier to success” in STEM fields, Ortiz declares.

Tip #6:  Be ready and academically prepared for college

Too many Latino students start college and aren’t fully prepared for it, notes Luis Fernandez, dean of academics and a chemistry professor at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. He recommends that students ensure they can write well, do basic math and learn to problem-solve. “Promoting critical thinking is key to academic success,” he suggests.

Tip #7: Take care of college finances

Ortiz says many Latinos view the high cost of college as a major challenge, but it can be overcome. He recommends a variety of strategies to pay for it and ease one’s anxiety about it including: 1) spending time researching and applying for scholarships, 2) taking advantage of college’s free financial literacy program, 3) paid internships, which can entail taking a semester off, 4) apply for FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) money.  He calls identifying an advisor or counselor to assist in this effort “immeasurable. Building their financial acumen will serve them during college and beyond.”

Tip #8: Use community colleges as a stepping stone

Half of all Latino students in higher education are enrolled in community colleges. Taking demanding science and math classes in junior college is critical to succeeding at four-year colleges. Fernandez from St. Thomas University said starting at a community college should never be considered a “stigma, but a hallmark that enables you to transfer to a four-year college.

Tip #9: Consider majoring in engineering, which has a need for more Hispanics

Only 6% of all employees in engineering are Latinos, according to the National Center for Science and Programming. Since many companies want to diversify, there’s opportunity there. The opportunities are countless in engineering for talented Hispanics, explains Garcia Thomas. “It’s across the board, at a lab and technician’s level, especially for Latina.  It’s always been a man’s field,” but that’s changing, she suggests.

Tip #10: Adopt a growth mind set

Luis Fernandez urges Latino students to adopt a growth mind set, not a fixed mind approach. “Learn from your pitfalls, your mistakes and your successes. Always improve. That’s a growth mind set,” he says. And with a growth mind set, identify a college professor, Hispanic or not, who can help navigate the college experience.

Tip #11: Choose role models and mentors in the STEM field

The HACU study noted that “the need for and the importance of role models and of mentorship has been stressed at every stage.”  Hence, Ortiz says Latino students should strive to pursue mentorship and internship programs, such as HACU’s National Internship program, where students gain internships at the Bureau of Land Management or Department of Energy.

Tip #12: Don’t get discouraged by any negative feedback

Luis Fernandez describes one former student who wasn’t doing well in a colleague’s chemistry class. That professor advised her that “Chemistry isn’t for you.”  She ignored his negative feedback, moved on, earned her bachelor’s degree, then her doctorate in chemistry and is now a leading researcher at L’Oreal in New Jersey. “If you have the passion, and this is what you want to do, keep doing it. That’s a growth mindset,” Fernandez declares.

Tip #13:  Master networking

Networking is critical to first-generation Latinos and Latinas in STEM fields, says Garcia Thomas. To succeed, it requires a “strong supportive network of teachers, peers, and professionals,” she says. She suggests getting involved in community outreach, and seeking out, as she did, women and Mexican American engineering groups. “They’re trying to accomplish the same goals as you are,” she says.

Tip #14: Make sure to involve parents

“We get so excited when we send our son or daughter to college, but weeks into the academic semester, reality hits,” Ortiz relates. If a college student runs into a major roadblock in college, reach out to parents to see if they can help unravel the situation.

Tip #15: Derive satisfaction from the work

Garcia Thomas has been working, as project manager, on constructing a new stadium at the University of Texas, which won’t be ready to open until late 2021 or 2022.  The work, she says, is extremely complex and yet extremely satisfying, entailing digging 50 feet into the ground, and building multiple levels of a stadium. “I’m working with a whole design team and a team of engineers, and we’re all working for one goal: to build a brand new stadium,” she says.

By Rhea Gellineau-King
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