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STEMming the Gap: Helping an Engineer Find His Wings

There is no shortage of reports offering cautions regarding the competitiveness of the United States in science and engineering. The latest to appear is a 217 page effort from a committee chaired by Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, III, titled Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. Dr. Hrabowski, the renowned president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has long focused his attention of mathematics and science equity and excellence, and has written numerous books and articles on the subject. He sent me a copy of the report, which notes that “America faces a demographic challenge with regards to its Science and Engineering workforce: minorities are seriously underrepresented in science and engineering, yet they are also the most rapidly growing segment of the population.”

The report, supported by the National Academies, advocates that increasing the participation by underrepresented minority students in science and engineering should play a “central role” in building our nation’s research and innovation capacity, for three reasons: 1)Our sources for the future science and engineering workforce are uncertain; 2)The demographics of our domestic population are shifting dramatically; 3)Diversity is an asset.

Perhaps a good place to look for more scientists and engineers is a place like San Ysidro, a barrio community in Southern California, a stone’s throw from the U.S./Mexico border. That’s where Jesus Medrano grew up, attended Southwest High School, participated in AVID, and from where he went on to graduate from MIT with a degree in mathematics.

Today, Medrano is a 26 year-old Guidance Control Navigation Engineer with Northrop Grumman, a San Diego-based engineering firm. His current project is to collaborate with a team on an “autonomous air vehicle.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” he says, “a very unique project. I get to work with a great team on the ‘brains of the plane.’”

In his spare time, Medrano learns new computer programming languages (about 10 since he left MIT four years ago), reads books by one of his heroes, John Nash (Nobel Prize-winner featured in “A Beautiful Mind”), and follows San Diego sports teams.

When I first met Medrano nearly ten years ago he was fast becoming a legend in the AVID world as an AP virtuoso. At the AVID Center, we heard about this previously “tough kid from the neighborhood” who was challenging as many AP courses as possible.  By the time he graduated from Southwest High School he had taken 11 AP courses and 12 tests, passing all but one. The Medrano AP scorecard reads like this (5 being the highest score):

  • Art History (4)
    “…studying with friends without taking the class…”
  • Calculus A (5)
  • Calculus B (5)
  • Chemistry (4)
  • Economics (4)
  • English Literature (3)
  • European History (4)
  • Government (4)
  • Language and Composition (2)
    “I felt bad; I let my teacher down.”
  • Spanish Language (4)
  • U.S. History (4)
  • Physics (4)

After building this resume, it is no surprise that Medrano received acceptances to a number of colleges, including UC San Diego, UC Los Angeles, UC Berkeley, and Princeton, finally settling on MIT.

But we almost missed Jesus Medrano, almost let him walk by us and follow a path that would lead many of his friends into very different lives, marked by non-academic pursuits, violence, and even crime.  By his own admission, Medrano was a troubled and troubling youth in middle school and even in his freshman year of his school. In a 2006 letter he writes he was a “menace.” I find it difficult to think of Medrano as ever having been a menace, but for many years, he found it easier to avoid academic success. “I was afraid to do well in school,” he recalls. “If you did, you got teased or bullied.”

In the book 25 Years - 25 Stories, Medrano’s chapter describes a sometimes difficult neighborhood where, on occasion, shots rang out and he spent long hours watching TV to tune out the misery. His father worked hard to support the family, but had no education beyond elementary school. As the oldest child, Medrano had no role models.

Still, despite his poor record, he was recognized as having academic potential and was recruited into AVID in the 9th grade. “My ninth grade AVID teacher, Helene Mathews, turned things around for me,” he says. “I had a rough ninth grade year, even got a D in algebra, which I had to retake in my senior year, after getting a 5 on the AP Calculus exam. That was interesting.”

Mathews saw something in the sometimes withdrawn student, with a sometimes caustic sense of humor.  “She pushed me, wouldn’t take no for answer. And I liked challenges. She told me I was capable of more. I wanted to prove her right.” Medrano was also encouraged to join clubs and school activities, the academic decathlon, joining mainstream activities of the school.  The AVID classroom provided a safe environment, where it was acceptable to be smart. “Before,” he recalls, “it was more normal to goof around.” Mathews would have none of that. “I can’t give her enough credit,” Medrano says. “She was what I needed. She didn’t try to be my friend. She was stern when she needed to be. Once I was on track she befriended me.”

AVID’s academic training, organizational focus, and tutorials helped change Medrano’s behavior. “But the biggest thing,” he says, “was the awareness and the planning for what I had to do to get to college. That helped me at MIT. It was challenging there, I admit, lots of late nights, lots of big egos there. But I always had a plan. I read the course catalog, kept myself on schedule.”

Jesus Medrano’s school district, the Sweetwater Union High School District, has implemented AVID for over 20 years, with thousands of AVID graduates. In 2010, the district had over 240 AVID graduates. Sixty-two percent reported that they qualified for free and reduced lunches; 70% were Latino or Hispanic, and 87% completed the requirements for four-year colleges and universities. AVID is one part of the district’s college readiness efforts, which also include GEAR UP, Project Lead the Way, and the revolutionary Compact for Success with San Diego State University.

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