Jay Flores on STEM Advocacy for Minorities

Jay Flores on STEM Advocacy for Minorities

Young students need strong role models and diverse opportunities to explore their future STEM careers.
Jay Flores, CEO and founder of Invent the Change, has spent his entire career trying to inspire young STEM minds. He has worked with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Rockwell Automation, and FIRST Robotics to mentor and educate young people, exploring the power of STEM. The challenges of the past few years have impacted the education model greatly, particularly the underrepresented minority groups. He speaks with ASME.org on how we can continue to push STEM initiatives forward among minority groups and increase diversity and interest among them.
Q1: As a Latino engineer, describe what drives you and your passion for STEM advocacy?
Jay Flores: I’m the first engineer in my family. That was partly due to my parents putting me on a good track to understanding that education was important. Another significant influence for me was my teachers. Several teachers said; you’re doing well in math and science and pushed me to be an engineer. No one ever told me that before. Teachers sharing their insight to help students search for what they want to be when they grow up is invaluable. Once I started my career with Rockwell Automation, they had some absolutely wonderful outreach programs that helped me see the connection of how my math and science knowledge could be applied. That encouraged me to help reach out to other students that may not have had that knowledge or may not have had someone in their family that was an engineer. And then that passion just kept growing and growing and eventually became my profession.

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Q2: The last few years have been very turbulent for education. With several students having to study remotely and return to schools in difficult conditions, what is your opinion on the state of STEM today?
J.F: One of my concerns is that, especially in underrepresented communities, especially for young girls, students are way less likely to interact with an engineer or a STEM professional right now. No field trips are occurring to science museums, engineers aren’t visiting many schools in person for career days or demonstrations, and company tours are not happening. Recently, I created a YouTube series called “It’s Not Magic, It’s Science.” I took at-home science experiments but framed them in a way that appeared to be magic. But there are no smoke and mirrors; it’s just science. I made sure that STEM was getting into their homes and could reach anyone.
Q3: In regards to underrepresented groups, we know that white engineers predominantly dominate engineering. For minority groups like Latinx, African Americans, and young girls that don’t have strong STEM advocates, what problems are you currently seeing among those groups?
J.F: A large part of it is the phrase, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ If you’ve never met an engineer like you, I would understand why there wouldn’t be a connection to STEM communities. There needs to be more done to elevate STEM leaders within those underrepresented communities and showcase them as role models. This is especially true for young girls and the way we talk about opportunities for young girls. I feel like the conversation of excelling in math or science is focused solely on boys a lot of time. The defining traits of a good engineer are too focused on whether or not you like taking things apart, like disassembling your clock radio. Growing up, I didn’t do a lot of those things, but I was still curious about science. We need to broaden that definition of what it means to be an engineer and allow students to understand that it’s just problem-solving. When we’re talking to students, we need not only a diverse set of role models but also a diverse set of opportunities. By helping them understand that if you like helping people, you don’t have to be a doctor but can create a product that prevents that disease in the first place. You could be someone that creates cereal or someone that launches things into space. There are so many different opportunities, and we need to make sure that we’re reaching students with a wide variety of them.

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Q4: Keeping minorities and young women in STEM has been a major challenge. The deeper they get into their educational journeys, the wider the STEM gap for them becomes. How is your organization Invent the Change helping to keep students within STEM?
J.F: I’m partnering with organizations to work with those young ages. For example, instead of math homework being the student’s sole responsibility, we are working with families to make math fun and an entertaining family activity. By reducing the anxiety and having the family doing it together, the parents are engaged, and the students are excited. This creates a support system around the student and prevents the ‘I’m not a math person’ mentality that a lot of parents end up feeling, which then translates the student. Helping young people see that just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean that you’re bad at it is so important for making that gap smaller. And if they don’t like math or science, they’ll focus on the other subjects. We need to help them understand that you could fail a lot when you’re trying to change the world. We need to normalize that it is ok to learn from those experiences and that it’s part of the process.

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Q5: What changes would you like to see within STEM education?
J.F: We need to make sure that the education system is keeping up with how fast technology is moving, which is very difficult. But one of the key things we can do at the school level is to see every student growing up as trilingual. What I mean by that is that they know at least English, another language, and some kind of programming language. I come from the Hispanic community, so I want my kids to know English, Spanish, and a programming language. There are free resources that young students and parents can access online to help them reach a middle-school proficiency, and then the students can continue furthering their education in schools. The past few years have highlighted the tech disparity among minority groups, and communities need to invest in bringing their whole educational system up to speed.
Carlos M. González is special projects manager.

This interview has been adapted from a podcast and edited for length and clarity. To listen to the podcast visit ASME TechCast.

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