By Sandra Arnold
GALVESTON, Texas - Before entering the building, engineers Franchelle Craft and Eduardo Irigoyen turn their cell phone ringers off. They make their way to the front desk, sign in as visitors and wait to be escorted to a classroom where they will spend the next two hours interacting with middle school students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses as volunteers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District's "Corps in the Classroom" program.
The partnership program between the district and local schools seeks to build relationships between Corps employees and underrepresented middle and high school students to encourage an interest in STEM courses and the pursuit of engineering and science career fields.
"We all realize the critical role that science, technology, engineering and mathematics education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leaders of the global marketplace and enabling the Department of Defense and Army in the security of our nation," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Bostick, U.S. Army Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It is good to see that districts, divisions, labs and other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' organizations are committed to teaming with others to strengthen STEM-related programs that inspire current and future generations of young people to pursue careers in STEM fields."
The district's program directly supports the Corps' STEM initiative to partner with schools to strengthen STEM outreach and motivate students to seek STEM-related occupations -- a program Irigoyen wishes was around when he was a young student.
"I would have loved to have been part of the STEM Awareness Program growing up because there is so much information out there that nobody told me about regarding possible careers," said Irigoyen. "Through this program, I get to inform kids, parents and teachers of all the possibilities that are out there by choosing a STEM field and I also get to mentor future engineers and teach them how to succeed in college."
Corps in the Classroom provides volunteers like Craft and Irigoyen the opportunity to interact one-on-one with students to answer questions about their professions and exposes students to women and minority professionals working in STEM-related occupations.
"I love it when I'm talking to students and their parents and I let them know that I have the same background that they have -- a first generation Mexican-American from immigrant parents -- and that I was able to accomplish my goals," said Irigoyen. "I always get asked: How did you decide to be an engineer? What do you like most about your job? And of course, the most popular question is always how much money do you make?"
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM jobs will continue to grow faster than other occupations (17 percent between 2008-2018 compared to just 9.85 percent for non-STEM jobs) yet minorities and women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up 46 percent of the total workforce but hold only 24 percent of jobs in technical or STEM fields. African-Americans and Latinos each comprise 13 percent of the total workforce and only 3 percent of the technical workforce.
"I believe the reason we're so underrepresented in STEM is because of the lack of knowledge that some kids might have. I know the talent is out there, we just need to foster and motivate the students in increasing their interest in STEM," Irigoyen said.
With gaps in STEM education often beginning before students attend college and continuing to increase as students graduate and pursue higher education, the USACE Galveston District is working with partners to spark students' interest in STEM subjects, help counter stereotypes and increase the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM courses.
Craft, the 2011 Modern-Day Technology Leader recipient at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM Global Competitiveness Conference and 2006 Prairie View A&M University graduate, says every engagement provides her with an opportunity to positively impact a child's career choice.
"I believe the interaction with minority female engineers encourages students to think outside the box of traditional career fields women were once known to work in," said Craft. "It allows them to see a person who looks like them succeed in a field that was once dominated by males and gives them confidence to know that they too can succeed."
Approximately 10 percent of the USACE Galveston District volunteers in more than 30 STEM-related events throughout the year ranging from judging science fairs to being guest speakers, all of which helps to promote STEM awareness and encourage today's students to pursue STEM careers. These combined outreach initiatives aim to mentor youth and attract females and minorities to work in STEM-related fields, who may one day join the USACE Galveston District and become part of a workforce that boasts a 52 percent population of women and minorities employed in STEM-related positions.
"I began my career with the Corps' Galveston District as a Department of the Army intern and progressed as a project engineer," said Craft. "I am encouraged when I see the excitement of minority females considering me as a role model and want them to realize that I am tangible proof that engineering careers are accessible to all."
The U.S. Department of Commerce's 2011 "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" report found only one in seven engineers is female, that women have seen no employment growth in STEM-related jobs since 2000 and that they remain vastly underrepresented in STEM jobs and among STEM degree holders despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and half of the college-educated workforce.
With more work needed to be done to increase female and minority representation in STEM careers, both Craft and Irigoyen plan to continue volunteering with the Corps in the Classroom program to help close the performance gap in underrepresented students' STEM educational achievement and encourage students to secure the technical jobs of the future and keep our nation on the edge of innovation.