San Antonio middle-schoolers benefit from STEM conference

Eighth grader David Lopez and his classmates from Davis Middle School cheered as their CPS Energy-built miniature solar cars sped across the carpet in one of the many rooms at the 3rd annual CORE4 STEM Expo.

Hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the conference is aimed at middle school students who are at-risk and/or interested in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or math.

Eighty percent of good paying jobs in the future will require a STEM background, said Hispanic Chamber President and CEO Ramiro Cavazos. The goal of the conference is to make those disciplines accessible and fun, to help young people see that they lead to good careers.

“We see this as the biggest return on our investment,” Cavazos said, “trying to fill this pipeline of demand,” for companies like Toyota, Valero, Rackspace, Boeing and CPS Energy, which are among the many local sponsors of the conference.

Last year, Cavazos said, Mexico produced more engineers than the U.S., a situation he called “profoundly shocking.”

“We need to do more to make our kids STEM-strong,” he said.

National statistics bear out his concerns.

According to Change the Equation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, CEO-led initiative working to mobilize the business community to improve the quality of STEM learning in the United States:

In addition to being one of the sponsors of the conference, CPS Energy supports STEM education in other ways, most notably through its SAFE program.

For 22 years, SAFE, or Student Assistance for Education, program, has paired high-achieving high school students interested in STEM-based careers with CPS Energy mentors, offered them paid work experience at the utility, and scholarships to help attend college.

To date CPS Energy has worked with 126 students and paid out $585,000 in scholarships through SAFE. Doing so is good for CPS Energy and good for the community, said Lisa Lewis, vice-president of corporate communications and media relations.

“CPS Energy relies on a wide variety of engineers and analysts; encouraging local students to enter STEM fields helps us fill jobs within the community,” she said, “which then benefits from a stronger tax base.”

At this year’s conference, CPS Energy employees hosted three workstations, where the kids learned about energy storage with the solar cars, how to increase the energy efficiency of solar panels and how to pump water uphill.

In the Rackspace room, a group of boys held tennis rackets between their knees, trying to maneuver a gumball after Chris Bartels, a development operations engineer, explained “load balancing,” or spreading out traffic in the Cloud to increase reliability.

“I helped build that product,” said the young, t-shirted Bartels. The kids clapped admiringly.

In another room, NASA engineer and Fox Tech High School graduate Robert Treviño spoke to a room full of wiggly boys about his journey from draftsman at the San Antonio airport to NASA engineer.

“How many of you here know anyone, in your family, or a friend, who is an engineer?” he asked.

Not a single hand went up.

Cavazos said that’s one reason the Hispanic Chamber focuses on at-risk youth.

“So many of these kids, they don’t have any role models in this area,” he said.

Tony Jaramillo runs the STEM lab at Davis Middle School, the first of 11 San Antonio Independent School District middle schools to build labs with money earmarked from the 2010 bond.

The students lead their own projects, Jaramillo said, and are encouraged to help each other and do their own research to solve problems.

“They recently built an underwater robot,” he said, his voice tinged with admiration. “I didn’t think it would work, but they researched it, figured out how to do it.”

Jaramillo said he thought the STEM conference helps kids connect studying math, engineering and science to the idea of a good paying career.

“They’ve been asking me, where can I keep learning this? What schools will keep teaching me?”

Tracy Idell Hamilton

Tracy Idell Hamilton was part of the Corporate Communications team at CPS Energy.

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