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Feature Story

Students at Elementary School

Ross Mishima/Boeing

Boeing engineers spend the day helping students try out a variety of flight test techniques and paper airplane designs as part of the Great Minds in STEM program.

Future engineers inspired through Great Minds in STEM

 Elementary School students

Michael Gail/Boeing

At the start of the day, each student participating in the Great Minds in STEM program receives a "degree" in engineering and is assigned a field of study, such as aerospace, electrical, mechanical or software engineering.

Tucked inside Huntington Beach, Calif., and surrounded by wealth, tourism and scenic beaches, Oak View Elementary School has distinct demographics: 98 percent of its population is Hispanic and more than 90 percent of its students qualify for the state’s free-lunch program.

Teachers at the school say many of the children have never been to the beach, located only three miles away. Nearly 10,000 people live in the neighborhood, often sharing small apartments with multiple families to make ends meet. The school is only a few miles from Boeing’s Huntington Beach site.

In the past, most of these children could not dare to dream about attending college. But thanks to the efforts of organizations such as the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Conference (HENAAC), programs aimed at children in grades K-12 have greatly increased, providing scholarships and professional outreach to communities with large Hispanic populations. HENAAC recently changed its name to Great Minds in STEM (GMiSTM), reflecting an expanded role and efforts to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers in all underrepresented communities.

Alex Lopez and students

Michael Gail/Boeing

Alex Lopez, vice president for Boeing Phantom Works’ Advanced Network & Space Systems, offers guidance as students work on circuit boards during a one-day technology event sponsored by Great Minds in STEM and Boeing to inspire future engineers.

The Boeing Company is a founding member and has been a sponsor of GMiS since 1989. Boeing has several employees in the GMiS Hall of Fame, including Rick Stephens, Boeing senior vice president of Human Resources and Administration, and John Tracy, Boeing senior vice president of Engineering, Operations & Technology. GMiS is designed to engage students, parents and teachers in activities that keep America technologically strong by promoting science, technology, engineering and math careers among youth in locations where STEM careers are rare.

Alex Lopez, vice president of Boeing Phantom Works’ Advanced Network and Space Systems, and a board member for Great Minds in STEM, recently led a Boeing delegation to a Viva Technology program for Los Angeles and Orange county schools. Lopez addressed ninth-graders from five predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles high schools who gathered at El Monte High School. Lopez told students that he became an engineer because he was always curious about how things work, loved math, science and solving problems, and, most importantly, his father, an engineer, inspired him.

"I liked solving problems and I liked math and science," said Lopez, who was two years old when his family fled communism in Cuba. "I overcame difficult challenges, but I worked hard to get where I am today, and so can you."

Boeing engineer Maida Lopez grew up surrounded by gangs in South Central Los Angeles. When she was in ninth grade, she admitted she was years behind the other students, but a teacher and an older sister inspired and encouraged her to catch up on her studies and focus on math and science.

"Now, I help protect the United States as a systems engineer for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense communications network," Maida said in an emotional speech to the students. "And my message is to not be afraid of your fears. You can do this. If I can do this, so can you."

Boeing’s Viva Technology team reached out to a younger audience later in the week -- 120 fifth-graders at Oak View Elementary School, where for an entire day, fifth-graders worked as engineers -- building paper airplanes to test which designs would travel the farthest and designing circuit boards in teams with Boeing volunteers. Many of the airplanes nosedived on their first flight, but students, with the help of Boeing volunteers, went back to the classroom and redesigned their airplanes in time for the competition. The children worked for prizes, recognition and praise.

"If this is the kind of work engineers do, then I want to be an engineer," said one student, grinning from ear to ear as he examined his paper airplane.

In addition to engineering activities, students were offered eye-opening conversations with Boeing’s engineers, empowering kids to think far ahead and develop a love for math and science now. Some of the shyest students, who rarely raise their hands in class, were giddy and animated as they boldly asked questions of the Boeing team. Teachers said the number one goal is to build a lifelong love of learning, without fear of math and science. School administrators said without Boeing’s sponsorship, a school like Oak View Elementary would not have the funds for events that spark curiosity and nurture enthusiasm.

"Engineering was a window for me when my eyesight kept me from being a pilot in the Air Force," said David Davila, an engineer and Boeing test manager. "If I couldn’t fly, then I would learn how to make airplanes."

Davila, a longtime STEM volunteer, said his efforts have paid off. While speaking at a high school in San Antonio years ago, he was approached by a student who was an active gang member on the verge of failing high school. The student appeared inspired by Davila’s story and indicated he might be an engineer one day.

"A few years later, my sister ran into him," Davila recalled. "He was majoring in engineering at the University of Texas at San Antonio."

If children are to have a future career in science and engineering, they have to take algebra in the sixth grade, said Tony Ortega, assistant superintendent at Ocean View School District. Statistics show that the dropout rate for children who pass sixth-grade algebra is near zero.

"For those children who do not pass, the dropout rate is 50 percent," said Ortega.

We need future engineers, Lopez told teachers and parents, in Spanish, at a workshop before the grade-school event. "Some of these students -- your children -- could be working for Boeing someday."

After his participation, Lopez said the event exceeded his expectations, and he was happy to give back to the community and support those who come next.

"This program by GMiS is the best I have seen to capture the imagination of young, underserved students and open their eyes to the possibility of becoming engineers," said Lopez. "I expect to repeat this event next year at Oak View, and hope to replicate it at all of our major sites at Boeing."

The Viva Technology program, as part of Great Minds in STEM, also helps parents and teachers assist their students to select and succeed in college and university degree programs, and to be prepared to access the opportunities of the 21st century professional technical workforce.

"These children will remember this day for a long time," said Lisandra Parga, a volunteer and engineering student at Cal State Los Angeles. "We have planted seeds here, and we have planted hope."