Logo: University of Southern California

Like No Other Profession

Kids and parents discovered the fun of being engineers at a Saturday Tech Fair held in conjunction with the Education Crisis Summit

September 25, 2008 — In the Gold Room of the Davidson Conference Center, more than 50 youngsters fidgeted and whispered as they waited for the presentation to begin. Most came from the USC Family of Schools – the 32nd Street/MaST School and James A. Foshay Learning Center – and their faces represented the future many academics and presenters had been talking about during the conference: they were Latino and African American, the most underrepresented groups in  Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers.
Day 2 Tech Booths Cropped
Kids crowd into the Davidson Conference Center's Gold Room to see displays and exhibits featuring government and  private companies in aerospace and  engineerng.

The chatter in the room quieted when John Santos, a teacher at Manual Arts High School, one of the original members the USC Family of Schools, started a high-energy video that depicted a robotic competition.  Little by little, the restless boys began paying attention to the slide show and video action set to Van Halen’s “Right Now.”

After the video stopped, Santos began to speak.

“At Manual Arts High School, we believe you learn by competing,” he said. “We want to include in our program whatever it is that turns you on.”

One of the things Manual Arts High School does is build robots. Santos’s students, who belong to a chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) that has participated in several robot competitions, shared their experiences with conference participants.

“It’s a good experience. You give up Saturdays and Sundays, we had to give up a lot, but it was worth it,” said Blanca Rodriguez, president of Manual Arts High School’s SHPE chapter.

Santos showed more videos: one from “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” an organization tasked with inspiring more young people to pursue a STEM career through competitions; and one of young women and people of color inspired to become the innovators of the future.
Day 2 Tech Fair Teacher Cropped
Darryl Newhouse (upper right, waving), a math and robotics teacher at Foshay Learning Center, leads a student team in the Robotics FIRST competition each year.

“Everyone is looking for young engineers of color to fill the needs of their community,” Santos said.  “Universities have programs in place to help you, to get people like you thinking about science. If you’re not good at math, you can learn to be good.”

Randy Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Foshay Learning Center, said he enjoyed the presentation.

“Robotics is great,” he said. “At Foshay we have a robotics team I’m planning to join.” During the presentation, he realized how much robots could do and got inspired to join the team.

Saturday’s conference was aimed at parents as well as students, and Sandra Cebrian was one of the parents who attended.

“I’m really enjoying being here,” she said.  “There’s a lot of good information,” said the mother of an 11-year-old boy who attends 32nd Street/MaST School.

In a breakout session entitled “Why College Now?,” Darin Gray, science coordinator for Viterbi’s USC MESA program, drew whistles from students when he outlined how expensive a college education can be.

“When you look at the cost of tuition, it can be $8,000 to $50,000 a year,” he said. “At the end of four years, it could be $32,000 to $200,000 to pay for college.  And if you’re going to live on campus, add the cost of room and board…”

That’s the reason why students need to begin preparing for college immediately, he said, by acquiring good studying habits that will get them the good grades that, in turn, will give them the scholarships they need to pay for college, especially when the competition is so tough.
Day 2 Audience Mills Cropped
An interested father picks up some literature.

“There are other students across the nation who want your spot,” Gray told the group.  And for the next 30 minutes, he walked students through a series of steps needed to take good notes, to study better and to better allocate their time.

“Your future starts today,” he said. “You want to start working on that right now.”

Mario Mayorga came to the conference with his oldest daughter, 11-year-old Amy Lopez. He said he’s always been interested in the sciences, but in his native Nicaragua, he didn’t have the opportunity to attend college. He came to the United States when he was 19 and had to start working to help his family. Now he wants to make sure his three daughters get a college education, hopefully in the sciences.

Day 1 Keynote Speaker Cropped
Jaime Oaxaca
Jaime Oaxaca, chairman of The Oaxaca Group and a former appointee to the National Science Board, filled in for keynote speaker of the day, astronaut Jose Hernandez, who was unable to attend due to the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in the Houston area, where he works.   

Oaxaca, known for his prowess as an orator, had some inspiring words for the students: “A well-known math teacher, Jaime Escalante, used to say that all a student needs is ‘ganas’ — willingness.  That, and that parents run a tight ship at home,” he said.  “If you have the latest style of Nike shoes, that won’t last you long, but your education will last a lifetime.”

At 78 years old, Oaxaca said a career in engineering opened the world to him and “it’s been a great run.”
“America is going to need you,” he addd. “People complain about this great country of ours, but (here) there’s nothing to keep you from being the best … You’re favored people. You’re all going to be engineers.  And you women have a great characteristic: when a man tries to do something and he fails, he says ‘I didn’t want to do it anyway.’ You women fail and regroup. If your boyfriend dumps you, don’t cry, it’s a blessing.”

Day 2 Tech Fair Crowd Cropped
Kids learn to build and test fly their gliders at one of the exhibits.
The Technology Fair was sponsored in part by the Viterbi School, along with industry and government partners including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Space Foundation, the Aerospace Corporation, Hewlett Packard, Xerox, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  Each company manned a booth to demonstrate STEM topics for the students and helped underwrite expenses.  Two student design project teams from the Viterbi School also manned booths to demonstrate hardware they have actually designed, built and tested in national competitions, including the Formula SAE Auto Racing Team’s latest race car and several aircraft from the Cessna / AIAA Design, Build Fly Competition.