Politicians and U.S. companies have long agreed that the U.S. has a shortage of workers skilled in science, math and engineering. But what they can't always agree on is how to get students -- especially minorities -- to choose those particular career paths.
Educators and politicians might want to study a Manos program started by the employees of the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. The hands-on program, which focuses on Hispanic middle school students, encourages kids to pursue a math or science education.
Focusing on middle school students who will eventually attend Rio Grande High School, the four-week program is an effort to reduce dropout rates and improve test scores. Sandia's Hispanic Leadership Outreach Committee launched Manos 23 years ago, and while it's difficult to track the success, the program is delivering results.
At least three alumni of Manos work at Sandia after earning doctorate degrees. Organizers said there are countless other alumni who work outside the Albuquerque community in the science and technology field.
"One of the things we try to drive home during the lessons is the importance of bridging high school to college or the university," said Javier Ruiz, a business program lead who assists with the Manos program. "We try to portray the message that the next step after high school is the university or college in order to have a career in some of the cool stuff we've been doing in this program."
Offering a fun and hands-on approach to math and science is why the program has been so successful over the years, organizers said. About 130 students participated this past April, with more than 3,000 kids going through Manos since it began in 1990.
Among the experiments the students took part in was a "CSI Investigation" where they had to locate a missing dog by dissecting hair follicles and testing cloth by burning it to see what kind of person might have taken the animal or removed it. Students also built rockets and flew them, designed and built rollercoasters and even created a bridge to see how much weight it can hold.
Miquelita Carrion, program coordinator for Manos, said fun activities such as building their own Web pages keep the students engaged.
"The students are programming the electronic car they actually built themselves," she said. "Our volunteers teach them about safety, such as how to use a soldering iron."
About 60 volunteers assist with the program. It's the job of Carrion and Ruiz, as well as HLOC leader Pat Sena, to help coordinate the staff and various modules. The Manos program takes place after school twice a week for two-hour sessions.
"We bus the students from their middle school to the high school because we want that sense of community and to feel connected to the high school, because ultimately that's where they'll be attending," Carrion said.
Manos also increases awareness about the Sandia National Laboratories among the students and parents. The lab is run for the U.S. Department of Energy by Lockheed Martin Co. and handles research and design responsibilities for national security, energy and environmental technologies.
"This is their community, and many don't know what Sandia is about, so we provide them an education on that," Carrion said. "At the very end of the student programs...we let them know what they need to do to apply for an internship here."
The concept could be applied elsewhere around the country, although most communities don't have the scientific resources of the Sandia National Laboratories. But beyond a fun introduction to math and science, Carrion said, the Manos program provides the students with mentors.
"They can see somebody in the classroom is just like them and they can do it too," Carrion said. "That can be just as important as what they learn."
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