From babysitting to mentoring future engineering students
February 26, 2014  |  By:   |  The Latest  |  

High school students learn from their college peers during Viva Technology Student Day


At age nine, Danielle Villar began babysitting to support her household, an experience that changed her life exponentially.
Villar, the only child of a single mother, attended a public elementary school in an at-risk neighborhood in La Puente. She babysat for a couple, both civil engineers, who shared stories about their work: how buildings are built, how a piping system works and its importance for society. She dreamed someday about doing the same.
“It made me excited and think, ‘Wow! If it weren’t for engineers we wouldn’t have culture or history as we do,’” she said.
Today, the Bishop Amat Memorial High School alum is two semesters away from a civil engineering degree at Cal State University, Los Angeles. With few women in her engineering classes, she admits at times she wanted to “give up” on the rigors of academic study.
According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report, growth in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) jobs has slowed down since the 1990s. Female employment in these fields decreased because their share in computer occupations declined to 27 percent in 2011, after reaching a record high of 34 percent in 1990.
Blacks and Hispanics are also underrepresented in STEM jobs, the report said. In 2011, six percent of STEM workers were black, and seven percent were Hispanic.
Villar, 24, is beating the odds. While completing her engineering degree, she works for Great Minds in STEM (GMiS), a Los Angeles County-based nonprofit created 25 years ago to promote STEM careers in underserved communities. Viva Technology, a nationally-acclaimed program of the non-profit, connects students with STEM professionals and college students who mentor them on hands-on projects.
Villar and other engineering mentors introduced Viva Technology to a Catholic school, Cathedral High School in Chinatown, for the first time, as part of the National Engineers Week (Feb. 16-22) celebrations. The program was made possible through the financial support of the Goodwin Trust Foundation.
“This has been a wonderful opportunity for me as well,” said Villar, at the Viva Technology Student Day at the all-boys Cathedral High. About 120 of the school’s STEM Academy competed in groups in an earthquake tower building competition in the school gymnasium, under the supervision of Jonathan Machorro, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District, and a crew of STEM college students and GMiS interns.
The school day activity was preceded by a bilingual teachers/parents meeting, where parents learned more about how to help their children excel in science and mathematics, and support them in exploring careers in engineering.
“Many people think math is only for the class. They don’t think it can actually affect their daily lives, and this is showing that it does,” said junior Ricardo Menard.
“Here I can discover new jobs I can pursue after high school and study more to pursue those jobs,” said sophomore Sergio Hernandez.
“Set goals!” Machorro told the teenagers, as he started listing his five points of advice. “Motivate yourselves; nothing easy is worth having; the world is your playground; and be anything you want to be,” with the help of career counselors at career centers, he suggested.
“They [the students] get exposure to major things they don’t think about and gear them toward the STEM field,” said mentor Jaqueline Alamilla, an environmental science senior at California State University, Long Beach, and a graduate from Downey’s St. Matthias High School (now St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy).
“We get a better insight of what we should expect in college,” said senior Alex Perez. He has applied to the University of California, Berkeley, and UC San Diego to study architecture engineering.
During the event, Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark emphasized the importance of connecting the development of scientific/technological skills with Catholic values.
“Catholic values of respect, honesty and ethics,” said Bishop Clark, who told the students about his brother, an engineer. “He is very successful in his field. However most important is that he brings values into the workplace. Values you learn in Catholic schools. Your value system is not something separate from your personal life or from your work ethic.”
Dr. Ray Mellado, founder of GMiS and Cathedral’s alum, encouraged the students to think of their place in society in 40 years.
“Our country needs engineers and scientists,” he said. “This is no longer a diversity issue, it’s a national security issue.”
Using as an example Target’s recent data breach, which compromised credit card information of thousands of customers, Mellado stressed the need of cybersecurity engineers and computer science engineers, among others.
After listing corporations such as Lockheed, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, he said, “All of these need engineers. This is where the jobs are and we’re not producing enough professionals for these companies, this is why we need you and why we’re doing this.”
Mellado highlighted the leadership component of Viva Technology.
“If we don’t go to college and are not leaders, our country is not going to make it. There are two leadership ways: Prepare yourself every day, and have a vision of where you want to go.”
He added the four Cs needed to be a good engineer that he learned from Mathematician Albert Baez, Ph. D. (father of singer Joan Baez): curiosity, creativity, confidence and compassion.
Most of which Villar said she practices.
“I think that Latinos work with their backs a lot, but not with our minds. We need to start doing that,” said the future engineer, who dreams of a master’s degree in hydrology or geotechnical engineering.
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Photo caption:
Cal State L.A. engineering senior Danielle Villar (fourth, from left) is surrounded by Cathedral High School students during the Feb. 21 Viva Technology Student Day, celebrated for the first time at a Catholic school.

Samuel Han