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Engaging Hispanic Students in Engineering

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Start with what kids already know, when teaching them engineering. Have them work in their community. Guest Dr. Alex Mejia says you should tap into students’ existing “funds of knowledge” to raise engineering students’ achievement. He’s done research on this pedagogical style with Latino and Latina students, as a professor of engineering in San Angelo State University and soon-to-be professor at the University of San Diego. We talk about his research, his background and motivation for doing this work, culturally responsive education, and practical strategies to teach all students.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.

Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon, by purchasing digital teaching materials at the Pios Labs curriculum store, or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.


Pius Wong  0:00 

Giving out thank you's galore before the show starts. First, thank you to my Patreon supporters who are helping me fund this podcast and my second new podcast called Engineering Word Of The Day. Thanks to the awesome listeners who already wrote reviews on both of my podcasts. Thank you to the people buying my book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games. And thank you to those signing up to beta test software for me. If you to enjoy this Las Vegas buffet of projects that I'm doing in my independent studio, Pios Labs, then be an awesome person and donate a bit on www.patreon.com/pioslabs. Maybe I can keep on doing this thing I call work a little bit longer if you do. You all are the best.


It's June 5th, 2017. And this is the K12 Engineering Education Podcast. Dr. Alex Mejia is an engineer and a professor at San Angelo State University in Texas, and very soon this August he'll be a professor at the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering at the University of San Diego in California. Dr. Mejia does research on how to teach engineering better to young students who are underrepresented in engineering in the US today, especially Hispanic populations. I'm your host Pius. When I spoke to Dr. Mejia, I started by asking him to introduce himself.


Dr. Alex Mejia  1:29 

Well, my name is Joel [HO-el] Alejandro Mejia, and I go by by Alex. And there's actually a funny story about that. When I moved to the United States, I was born in California, but I lived in Mexico for a long time. And when I moved back to the United States, my teachers kept calling me - kept saying Joel, Joel, Joel. And I did not know that they were talking to me, that they were referring to me. And so eventually, because a lot of people started calling me Alex, that's what most people call me now. And so, I received my Bachelor of Science in Metallurgical Engineering and Materials Engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso, my Masters in Metallurgical Engineering from Utah, and my PhD in Engineering Education from from Utah State. And so prior to working as an assistant professor here at Angelo State, I also worked at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and for FLSmidth Minerals as a materials engineer for that company. Currently, like you said, I'm an Assistant Professor of Engineering at Angelo State University. In the Department of Engineering, we have a newly created program in civil engineering. And I currently teach mostly undergraduate courses. So these courses are the building blocks pretty much for all of those students pursuing degrees in engineering and civil engineering. These courses include statics, dynamics, mechanics and materials engineering, graphics, introduction to engineering, and I also do some research. My current research focuses on how Latino adolescents use engineering design processes to solve community-based projects, and how their household bodies of knowledge and social practices, or what's also called "funds of knowledge," connect to engineering. The goal of my research is to develop a model for culturally responsive engineering education that views students' linguistic and cultural backgrounds as assets rather than deficits. And the the other goal is to pretty much connect those backgrounds to engineering design processes to make it more engaging for Latino students. I'm also particularly interested in engineering literacy and equity-oriented instructional strategies that support engineering literacy in the classroom. And so part of what I do is providing outreach in our area working with elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, just trying to get more students involved in engineering, and yeah, showing them just what engineering is all about.


Pius Wong  4:12 

Well, so since you've been all around the country, can you describe first of all Angelo State University and how that place is unique compared to the other places you've been?


Dr. Alex Mejia  4:25 

Yeah, so first of all, it is a Hispanic-serving institution. It was certainly designated as a Hispanic-serving institution, which means that at least we have higher than 25% of our students are Hispanic. And it's a primarily teaching institution. So we focus a lot on the teaching, trying to get our students graduated, learning the concepts. There's a lot of emphasis on trying to bring different, I would say, practices, teaching practices into the classroom. So in that sense, it's a little bit different from the other institutions where I've been, just because they were more research-oriented, and that's not the case here. We do some research here, for sure. But the focus is definitely on the teaching.


Pius Wong  5:17 

And why is that important? Why is it important to focus on, for example, Hispanic-serving institutions, or just minorities in general, when it comes to STEM education?


Dr. Alex Mejia  5:30 

Well, I think it's it's very important. I mean, the number of minorities that get degrees in engineering -- and I'm going to talk just in terms of engineering -- when compared to the general population, data shows that minorities do not get as many degrees in engineering. So they're definitely underrepresented. So if you look at the percentage of Latinos, for example, in the United States, the number of people that have degrees in engineering is not representative of the total population, so that means where they're underrepresented, right? We definitely need more more Latinos in engineering. So I always give this example to my students, and in my courses. Imagine that someone is going to make something for you, right? An engineer is given the task of giving something to your community, for example, and you're not at the table when all of those decisions are made. Do you think that you're going to like what those engineers decided to do for your community? So there are times when actually you have to consider those things. The diversity in engineering -- how does that affect how engineers work? Who gets invited to the table? Who makes those decisions? So all of that is very important. So that's one of the reasons why I see it's important to focus on different diversity initiatives and broadening the participation of Latinos in engineering.


Pius Wong  7:00 

And you're an example of a Latino who went into engineering and got lots of experience in engineering. What was your experience like? Did you face some challenges growing up? I hear you laughing.


Dr. Alex Mejia  7:18 



Pius Wong  7:19 

I don't know if you want to talk about that. But I'm curious if you want to briefly discuss that.


Dr. Alex Mejia  7:25 

Yes, I can talk about that. So, yes, that's one of the main reasons why I do the type of research that I do. I think, when I was in high school, like I mentioned, I lived in Mexico for a long time. I moved to the United States when I was 15 years old. And I was in the ESL program in my high school. And it was very frustrating. It was very frustrating that just because I was in the ESL program I could not take more advanced courses in mathematics or in science, that I was pretty much put into this box, where being an ESL student, learning English, put me apart from other students pretty much. I would ask people, how do you apply for colleges? Because I had no idea. I had no idea how to apply for a college. I didn't know how to apply for scholarships. So I wanted to know -- I wanted to learn so I could actually go to college. And I had people telling me, well, maybe you should go look into this school, a vocational school, or a technical school, rather than going into an engineering school. And so so yeah, there were several challenges. There's also that idea that because I was just learning English that I couldn't really perform well in mathematics, you know. So some of those challenges are the same challenges that I've seen. They're the same challenges that a lot of the students that I work with also face nowadays. And I mean, I graduated from high school in a long time ago. So it's sad, that even after all those years, all of that still happens in our schools.


Pius Wong  9:22 

Yeah. Are there any positive changes that have happened since then, since you've been doing the research?


Dr. Alex Mejia  9:28 

Oh, definitely, definitely. I think that my -- with the research and working with Latinos, with other underrepresented students, showing them that, you know, what they bring into the classroom is important, that it's relevant, that it is valuable, I think it makes a lot of difference for a lot of other students. There's that need for the students to see themselves and their families in the curriculum. You know, I think that it has made a change in that sense. They also see that the knowledge that they bring into the classroom is important. They see that the knowledge that they bring into the classroom is as important as the knowledge that the teacher brings into the classroom, and they see themselves as engineers. They start to perceive themselves as people who can do all of those things. I've seen especially with with girls, Latinas, in engineering, who start thinking about engineering in more broader terms. They start to see themselves in engineering. And I think that's very important, because it's not just the fact that Latinos are underrepresented, but women are also underrepresented in engineering. And so I think it's important that all of them see that. And I think that, for me, that's the positive. That's the positive thing that has happened. Since I've been doing this this type of work.


Pius Wong  10:56 

Can you talk more about the details of that research? You mentioned researching funds of knowledge. If you had to explain that to a random K-12 teacher, what does that mean?


Dr. Alex Mejia  11:08 

So funds of knowledge pretty much comes from this idea, this theory, that that says that students, that students at home, they learn different things. And it's not just random things. So they're the cultural resources and skills that the students have accumulated, historically, and culturally, their specific strengths, strategic bodies of essential information that in their household they need to maintain their well-being. So for example, some of the funds of knowledge described by some some authors in different research include things like knowledge related to building, to carpentry, to folk medicine, to mining, water management, household maintenance, and any other types of knowledge that are required for survival. And so those funds of knowledge are very -- it's a set of complex knowledge and skills that they need in their families to survive for their well-being. It also includes different beliefs, different values, different ideologies, gained through social and cultural practices. And the idea is that the knowledge should be valued in the classroom. That knowledge should be found within the classroom. And that instructors should be able to make connections between what we're trying to teach in the classroom and the knowledge that they already bring. So pretty much building on the knowledge that they already have. But at the same time, it's also validating for the student because you're valuing what the student is bringing from the home to the classroom.


Pius Wong  12:57 

And so in the engineering classroom, especially in K-12, how can a teacher value their students' different funds of knowledge?


Dr. Alex Mejia  13:08 

In this theoretical framework, it is very important that the teacher learns more about the students, that they take the time to learn about the students, that they take the time to learn what are some of their interests, what are some of the things that they do at home. Kind of embracing their ways of knowing, their ways of being, their ways of doing, right? And then using that in their classroom. So one way to do this, for example -- and this is what I've talked to a lot of different teachers is -- what you can do is provide a survey at the beginning of the year, where you learn a little bit more about the students' funds have knowledge, about their parents, what they do at home, what are their interests, all of that. And then use that as a way to frame different engineering challenges. So one example is, let's say I give a survey to my students at the beginning of the year. And I asked them questions about, you know, what did your parents do for work? What are some of the chores that you do? At home when you get back from school, you ask those questions. And then the students can provide you with different information. And then you're going to gather all of that information. And one way to frame simple interviewing problems is, for example, if the students talk about a specific setting, let's say, their neighborhood, and specific characters, like their mom, or dad, brother, sisters, even if they have like a little pet, like a dog or a cat, and then you ask them also about potential problems in their communities. So like, for example, some kids may say, may talk about how homes are too expensive, or how, in the winter, the homes get really cold, or the animals don't have a shelter, or things like that. Then after that, you can use all of that information, to create specific problems that capture all of it, all of those different settings, characters potential problems. And then you can ask the students, how would you redesign an expensive home for your, let's say, your grandma, with affordable materials found in your community? Or another way is: design a way for your, I don't know, your uncle's home to be warm during the winter months using these specific materials. Or how might we help your your mom collect rainwater to be used for domestic purposes? So that way, you're using all of the information that they're familiar with. And then you're framing an engineering problem for the students. And that way the students get to interact with their families at home. They can bring all of that knowledge to provide solutions to that problem. So it's a way to motivate the students to help them build on the knowledge that they already bring from home and all that.


Pius Wong  16:21 

And it sounded like you did research on that method of teaching, specifically with Latino students. How did that work out? What did the results of that study show?


Dr. Alex Mejia  16:34 

I was really happy about this work. And something that we found is that Latinos have a wealth of knowledge. Latino students coming from low-income families have a wealth of knowledge that they use constantly to solve engineering problems. I think that was the main, the key point from the research. Another thing that we noticed was that the students didn't have an idea of what engineering was all about. And they started to see themselves in engineering. They started to see themselves as engineers. They started to see themselves as able and capable of doing things that they sometimes maybe would have thought they were not thinking to do at all, you know?


Pius Wong  17:25 



Dr. Alex Mejia  17:26 

Personally, something that I was able to provide with my research is, can I challenge this idea of this deficit-thinking model in schools, that a lot of Latino students are just going to end up in the, you know, out of the pipeline or in specific pipelines, or it's going to be difficult for them to actually go to college and graduate and all that.


Pius Wong  17:50 

So I'm sure that there are a lot of teachers who would love to implement this style of teaching, especially if it encourages their students to pursue engineering more. Are there any challenges that they should be aware of? If they want to try to do this? Any tips you can give them?


Dr. Alex Mejia  18:09 

So I think that, at least with the teachers that I work with, the first thing that they say is, it's time-consuming, and it is hard, because I'm not an engineer. And I would say my advice is, it's not as hard as it seems. You don't have to be an engineer to understand or to learn more about your students, right? It takes practice. It definitely takes practice. But it's doable. And if you're able to frame a good problem for your students, I think that their results are going to be extraordinary. With some of the teachers that I talked to, some of them actually say, well, I have to align this to my standards, where the state standards are the Next Generation Science Standards. And there are ways to do it. I've tried to help teachers to align what they're trying to do to the Next Generation Science Standards with really great, really, really good results. And for those teachers who feel like, maybe they need a little bit more training, or more professional development, and learning how to do that, there's a lot of different resources online that they can definitely approach. One of them is -- and I don't know, I'm sure a lot of the teachers are familiar with this: Engineering is Elementary. Another one is TeachEngineering.org. And they will find a lot of different lesson plans, different activities. And those activities actually tell you how they align their objectives with the Next Generation Science Standards or state standards. But so I would say, one tip is to look at some of those materials, see how they did their engineering challenges based on that material. And again, it's just practice. Getting to know your students, I think, is the the most important thing. Once you start learning how to get to know your students and gaining the trust of your students, I think that the rest comes really easy.


Pius Wong  20:30 

So that advice sounds like that applies to more than just Latinos and Latinas. That could apply to any population, it sounds like.


Dr. Alex Mejia  20:38 

Oh, definitely. Yes. I think that goes for all students. And for all, not just K-12 for also for the college level.


Pius Wong  20:49 

Good point. Yeah, I would assume that at the college level, it can maybe be more challenging because you're trying to get to know more kids. I don't know how big your classes are. So you mentioned deficit-based thinking and explained your personal experience with that. I was just wondering, maybe some teachers are succumbing to deficit-based thinking without them even knowing it, because we already hear about maybe implicit bias, or just things that we aren't aware of. How can an educator recognize if they are doing their kids a disservice by by believing in deficit-based thinking? And how can they overcome that?


Dr. Alex Mejia  21:37 

So I think that by learning from the students' knowledge, or their knowledge resources, their ways of knowing, their worldviews, I think that teachers have an opportunity to promote learning in ways that are meaningful and relevant. And that's what is going to challenge their own deficit thinking, you know? I don't know if you've heard of culturally responsive education. But that's pretty much the the idea behind that, you know? Get to know your students so that you can challenge your own biases, so you can challenge that deficit thinking. I think that eventually, through a lot of reflection -- I think that reflection is very important for teachers. And I think that eventually, you will recognize that you have a sense about it, when you're saying something that is not right, or when you're making assumptions about your students. I think that's why reflection is so important for a lot of teachers. And I think that eventually, you start getting a sense of it. And that's how you recognize it. .


Pius Wong  22:48 

Well, Alex, thank you for the insights, how can someone find more information about what you do if they're interested? And about your research?


Dr. Alex Mejia  22:57 

So a lot of what I do, you can go to obviously the website, the Angelo State website. Look for the Department of Engineering. That's where I have a lot -- my CV is there. I have a lot of different publications that I worked on. So you can find that. And also one of the books that I worked on -- it's called Qualitative Research in STEM. And there's a whole chapter that talks about funds of knowledge and working with Latino students. So a lot of the research that I've done. And obviously they can definitely contact me. They can find my information online. Contact me.


Pius Wong  23:42 

Thank you so much for talking.


If you want to find out more about Dr. Alex Mejia's work, his book of research, or other resources he mentioned today, links to them are up on this episode's show notes. Thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard, please rate and review the show on iTunes or Stitcher. Follow the show on Twitter @K12Engineering, or follow me @PiusWong. Learn more about the show on Facebook, Reddit, and many other places, and you can also send me an email. Find all these details at www.k12engineering.net.


Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs. And you can support me and my studio at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.


Post-show notes for today's episode. First of all, I got a few words for you: iterate, brainwriting, Wronskian, eutectic, and SWE. These are all engineering-related words or terms or phrases or jargon. And they are the first words that I put up on the Engineering Word Of The Day podcast, a new podcast by yours truly. You can check out the details at engineeringwordoftheday.com or just find Engineering Word Of The Day as a podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, and let me know what you think. Also, second point, that guidebook that I wrote on how to apply improv comedy training games into engineering is always up on Amazon.com in print, or other Amazon websites, as we heard in previous podcasts, in other parts of the world. It's also up as an ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and a bunch of other booksellers. Whether you're a working engineer or a teacher, check it out for a good reference on how to apply these fun games to your profession. And on that same topic, the third point that I wanted to announceis that I have just drafted, with the help of some partners -- some colleagues have just drafted a website called improvpd.com, improvPD.com, and you can check it out right away. It stands for improv professional development. And so basically, as an extension to what I've already been doing with my studio, Pios Labs, I'm now offering in Central Texas right now, specifically, professional development trainings and workshops related to applying improv to your work. So this is an experimental program. It is something that we're newly offering. So contact me if you're interested, and let me know what you think. This is a new venture. They say to fail fast, and that's what we will do, if this doesn't work out. I would prefer to steadily succeed. I'll keep you updated on the progress.