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Georgia colleges try to polish allure of science, tech to Hispanics

The teenager crossed her fingers. The dark pellet was supposed to levitate. Like magic, it floated an inch into the air.

Cruz Alvarado, 16, smiled. Her science experiment worked. The pellet, a superconductor Cruz created, rose when the professor poured liquid nitrogen near it.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Alvarado, a junior at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett County, said afterward. On this day Alvarado was the one conducting the test, but she’s part of an experiment, too, one designed to get more Hispanic students interested in science, math, engineering and technology, taught in what are called STEM courses.

Across the state and nationally, educators and politicians from President Obama to Gov. Nathan Deal have talked about the need for students versed in those fields because they’re high-income professions and industries that are producing more jobs.

But recruiting Hispanic students to study these subjects has been difficult because they lag their peers in math and science competency, according to state scores, and sometimes arrive to college not ready for the rigorous course work. Another problem, some officials say, is breaking stereotypes to encourage students that, yes, there are Hispanic scientists and engineers and they can be one too.

Many Hispanic students have had little exposure to some STEM fields and their high schools don’t have the financial resources to allow students to conduct research and experiments that may pique their interest. Georgia’s Hispanic population continues to grow, with grade school enrollment increasing by nearly 100,000 students between 2000 and 2010, more than any other group, in 20 counties that surround Atlanta, according to a May 2013 Atlanta Regional Commission report.

To address the problem, six Georgia universities and colleges partnered to receive a $5 million federal grant to get more underrepresented minority students in STEM fields. Since 2006, the alliance has resulted in a 163 percent increase in enrollment among black and Hispanic students in STEM courses at the University of Georgia, an official said. She didn’t know the percentages of each race within that increase.

Students in the program must maintain at least a 3.0 grade point average. They receive stipends of up to $1,000 to conduct research, which one official said exposes them to a whole new world.

“It allows them to see themselves as scientists,” said Michelle Cook, the University of Georgia’s associate provost for institutional diversity and chief diversity officer.

One challenge is spreading the word about programs to recruit Hispanic students and get them interested in STEM fields, Cook and others said. Part of Cook’s pitch is that the students can conduct research to combat chronic illnesses that have high rates in Hispanic communities, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Some schools, such as Atlanta Technical College, have outreach specialists and coaches in bioscience technology and industrial engineering programs that are recruiting Hispanic students. Emory University hosts an annual Latino Youth Leadership Conference that has, in part, encouraged students to study STEM. Some Hispanic Georgia Tech students call and send handwritten letters to highly-recruited Hispanic students to close the deal.

Similar work is being done in some local school districts. For example, DeKalb County has created a STEM program at some schools with high Hispanic populations. Nearly 15 percent of all DeKalb students are Hispanic, said district spokesman Quinn Hudson.

Georgia Tech and Gwinnett Schools have partnered on a five-year program, called GoSTEM, to get more Hispanic students interested in those fields. The partnership is funded by the Goizueta Foundation, and it has about 160 students from two Gwinnett middle schools and Meadowcreek High.

Participating students, such as Cruz Alvarado, attended camps at Tech this summer where they conducted experiments or created video games. During the school year, they are in a mentoring program, participate in after-school programs with weekly STEM activities and join their parents in college workshops.

Like big-time college sports programs, Tech is searching for potential students as early as middle school through methods such as GoSTEM and getting databases of students who’ve taken the PSAT.

“We have to be involved in the (kindergarten through 12th grade) level,” explained Clark, Tech’s admissions director.

Once Hispanic students enroll in college, the next challenge is keeping them there, said Tom Mundie, Georgia Gwinnett College’s dean of science, where one quarter of Hispanic students are STEM majors. Some students need remedial coursework once they arrive on campus, Mundie said. A high percentage of all STEM students leave after the first year.

“Some students feel like they can get lost,” Mundie said.

GGC combats the problem by keeping class sizes low, between 24 to 28 students, he said.

Oscar Castillo, 15, a junior at Meadowcreek, said he’s learned more about the college application process and scholarships through the Georgia Tech program.

“This program has taught me everything,” Castillo said one recent morning at the Georgia Tech camp. “They have cleared the path for me.”

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