A new national asset: the Hispanic nanotechnologist


More needs to be done to attract this burgeoning population to fill the growing number of high tech jobs

By Sarah Fister Gale

Hector Ruiz, chief executive officer of Advanced Micro Devices, is one of the most prominent Hispanic figures in high tech. Born in Piedras Negras, a small town in Mexico, he walked across the U.S.-Mexico border every day to attend a high school in Eagle Pass, Texas, from which he graduated as valedictorian just three years after beginning to learn English. Ruiz went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD from Rice University, before eventually becoming CEO of AMD.

But Ruiz is the exception in the U.S., where only a handful of Hispanics hold senior roles in scientific fields, academia and the high tech industry, and few students are finding their way into science degree programs, at community colleges or universities.

However, that fact is poised to change. The population of Hispanics is growing faster than any other minority group in the U.S. By the year 2010, nearly one out of every six Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one will be Hispanic, and in many Western states, such as California, Hispanics will make-up nearly 50 percent of the working population, says Gus Koehler, president of Times Structures and co-author of “Training California’s New Workforce for 21st Century Nanotechnology, MEMS, and Advanced Manufacturing Jobs,” a survey prepared for the Economic and Workforce Development Program of California Community Colleges’ Workplace Learning Initiative.

Koehler points out that a huge number of high tech workers are beginning to retire, while new jobs in nanotech-related fields are being created daily as new products come to market.

“Who’s going to replace the retirees and fill those jobs?” Koehler asks. Hispanics.

Too often pigeon-holed into low-skill, low paying jobs, Hispanic students should represent the next wave of high tech engineers, operators and scientists - if schools can figure out how to draw them into the key fields in science, technology, engineering and math.

“There is a big educational gap,” notes Diana Rude, president of Bina Consulting, an economic development firm in Carmichael, Calif. She points to 2005 data on students in California that shows 58 percent of Hispanics in eighth grade scored below basic levels in math, and in 12th grade 70 percent scored below basic levels in science. “We are not doing a good job of educating these students.”

Rude also notes that the need to draw Hispanic kids into math and science is about more than helping them; it’s about helping the economy.

“This is a matter of having access to trained workers,” she says. “They will represent a majority of the workforce in 2010, and there is a strong economic link in California between educational attainment and increased investment and business development.”

Part of the challenge is that much of the population is not traditionally pushed toward science or math. If their English language skills are poor, Hispanic students may be redirected into remedial classes, or labeled as under-achievers when in fact they have all the skills and motivation to pursue deeper training.

An instructor and a student at Central New Mexico Community College examine a MEMS wafer together. Program proponents say the mentorship is critical in motivating students to enter technical fields. Photo courtesy of Central New Mexico Community College
Click here to enlarge image

Complicating matters further is that many Hispanics don’t recognize science and engineering as offering viable, good paying careers, says Juan de Pablo, professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and the director of the Materials Science Research Center on Nanostructured Materials. “They have no role models at the scientist level or in the schools,” he says, noting that when it comes to drawing a generation into a new field of work, familiar role models are critical.

De Pablo, for one, is working to tackle these obstacles, through programs funded by grants from the state of Wisconsin and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Through the PEOPLE program (Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence), which began in 1999, de Pablo works with teens who participate in three-week hands-on workshops where they learn about microelectronics and nanotechnology through activities such as dismantling and reassembling computers, touring cleanrooms, and measuring objects at the nanoscale.

“It’s exciting to watch their interest in science grow and to see them get drawn in,” de Pablo says.

He also works in partnership with the University of Puerto Rico to encourage graduate students to pursue PhDs at the University through grants from the National Science Foundation.

“Having Latinos achieve their PhDs and become prominent researchers in the U.S. is the first step in developing role models for younger students,” he says.

It’s already having an impact as several of his Ph.D. students mentor and teach the students in the PEOPLE workshops. “The kids get to see someone from a similar background, who speaks Spanish, getting a PhD in science, and that’s very effective,” he says.

Similar programs are underway across the country, where universities and community colleges are partnering with high schools to pique students’ interest in the sciences. But it’s a long battle that is far from over, says Matthias Pleil, a faculty member at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque where more than 50 percent of the student population is Hispanic. Pleil is part of a group at CNM that runs MEMS Academy, a program sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories, that encourages middle and high school students to take advanced classes in science and math. “Getting high school students hooked on science is something we always struggle with.”

Pleil blames the elimination of labs and vocational training, at least in part, for the problem. “We need to do a better job of teaching science as an applied field.”