Hispanics in Engineering Pick Up the Pace

Eric Iversen

To Begin With

Mexican Flag Mural, Ms. Phoenix,  used by permission

Mexican Flag Mural, Ms. Phoenix, used by permission

Hispanic Heritage Month – September 15 to October 15 – is a kind of good news/bad news moment. On the one hand, Mexico, Chile, and most of Central America celebrate independence holidays in the middle of September. On the other hand, Columbus Day ... 

Viva la ingeniería

Adrian Jimenez,  used by permission

Adrian Jimenez, used by permission

The news about Hispanics in engineering education has some of the same, cuts-both-ways qualities. Hispanics in engineering programs have been earning an increasing share of all post-secondary degrees. In the last 10 years, according to ASEE data, Hispanics have upped their take of engineering B.S.'s from 5.6% to 9.0%, and M.S.’s have gone from 4.5% to 7.3%, both more than 60% increases. Their Ph.D.'s have also risen, but less so, from 3.5% to 4.1%. All these increases have come at a time when overall engineering degree production has also swelled – by more than 20% for B.S.'s and M.S.'s and over 50% for Ph.D.'s. So Hispanics in engineering are outperforming overall increases at the B.S./M.S. level and notching real, if smaller, upticks in Ph.D.'s, too.

     Nevertheless, the increases in Hispanic engineering degrees still leave Hispanics under-represented in engineering. In 2010, NCES data found Hispanics earning 8.8% of all undergraduate degrees, a time when they earned 7.0% of engineering degrees (more-recent data might well show this gap decreasing). Furthermore, their 16% persistence rate in STEM fields lags white students' 25% rate of completing degrees.

Where They're Coming From

Per ASEE data, the top five schools in 2013 for graduating Hispanic engineers were:

  1. University of Puerto Rico: 521
  2. Florida International University: 385
  3. Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico: 359
  4. University of Texas, El Paso: 236
  5. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona: 210

Not surprisingly, all these schools are Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI). HSI's award about 40% of all undergraduate degrees earned by Hispanics, and about 20% of STEM degrees. Top-producing non-HSI's are:

  1. Texas A&M University: 203
  2. University of Central Florida: 196
  3. University of Florida: 178
  4. Arizona State University: 151
  5. University of Texas, Austin: 149

What to Do

A holistic solution would focus on three large areas, according to research by Gloria Crisp and Amaury Nora, two researchers at the University of Texas, San Antonio:

bernavazqueze,  used by permission

bernavazqueze, used by permission

  • Academic preparation – Strong grounding in elementary and secondary math and science learning, along with a full college-prep courseload, is a predictor of the choice to major in a STEM field. Access to opportunities in these areas is often restricted for Hispanic students because of their schools' funding stresses, poor teacher quality, and compromised educational environments.
  • Belief in yourself – Nothing succeeds like success, the vernacular formulation of the concept of self-efficacy. Students who believe they have the innate ability and appropriate training to succeed in school do so at higher levels than those who do not believe so. Research shows Hispanic students lag their white peers in both skills and confidence.
  • Friends and family networks – If all their friends are doing it, or if their parents encourage it, Hispanic students are much more likely to pursue STEM pathways.

Approaches to Outreach

Colleges and universities, along with engineering non-profits, operate numerous, extensive outreach activities designed to get Hispanic students interested in and prepared for studying engineering. Preliminary results from a survey we at Start Engineering are conducting show about 55% of all outreach programs at colleges and universities seek to engage Hispanic students as one of their target audiences. Both on their own and in collaboration with schools, a clutch of non-profits is active in the field, too. In various ways, all these programs seek to remedy the problems noted above:

  • MESA (Mathematics Engineering and Science Achievement) is among the biggest programs doing engineering-related outreach to Hispanics, operating in 11 states and reaching over 45,000 K-16 students every year. The Mesa Schools Program plumbs the K-12 side, offering a comprehensive academic enrichment portfolio: individual academic plans, training in test prep and study skills, competitions, parent and teacher support programs, and college and career information resources.
  • Great Minds in STEM promotes awareness of STEM opportunities to K-12 students through hands-on workshops and classroom resources. It recently launched a K-12 Educators’ Institute to help K-12 teachers integrate STEM content into their classroom work. Originally, the Hispanic Engineering National Achievement Awards Corporation, GMIS puts considerable resources into awards and recognition, offering scholarships and grants and promoting Hispanic role models at live events, in print publications, and online.
  • The Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers runs the SHPE Jr. Chapter Program. Through it, SHPE promotes soft skills and self-awareness along with STEM learning experiences. Communication, networking, professionalism, and other similar topics make up the soft skills dimension. The self-awareness thread works to prepare students for college success, addressing learning styles, first-generation college-going, the admissions process, and related questions. And the hands-on activities cover STEM topics of all kinds.
  • MAES, which started out as the Mexican-American Engineering Society, organizes STEM festivals, offers grants to students, and runs hands-on STEM workshops to make STEM fields exciting and accessible for Hispanic students.


The National Academy of Engineering's study of engineering messages revealed a few wrinkles among Hispanic teens' perceptions of the field. Hispanic girls call engineering "nerdy and boring" and not "fun" at disproportionately high levels. They were also unpersuaded of engineering’s positive effect on people’s lives and skeptical that "engineering helps shape the future.” Engineering images appealed most to girls when they featured women, and to boys when they showed machinery or technology. 

Role Models, Images Are Key Starting Points

These findings suggest, among other things, the importance of role models, especially for girls, like those featured at Por ellos, si podemos, a photography project featuring Hispanic children posing as notable Hispanic leaders. Hispanic woman engineers like Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space, or Linda Cubrero, the first Hispanic woman to graduate from a service academy, become important figures for making engineering seem possible and relevant to Hispanic girls. Role models of all kinds are a strong component of the outreach programs described above.

Our high school guidebook, showcasing cool things engineers do for work and how to become one.

Our high school guidebook, showcasing cool things engineers do for work and how to become one.

     Pictures of engineering in action, featuring both people and technology, liven up our elementary school book, Dream, Invent, Create, as well as our guidebook for high school students, Start Engineering. They're a staple of our approach to talking about engineering in ways that can excite kids about the possibilities that engineering offers them. We'd love to hear what has worked for you, talking about engineering to K-12 audiences. What role models do you cite? How do you approach these questions? Do let us know.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com