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Published in Print: March 9, 1983, as MESA Advances Minorities Toward Technical Careers

MESA Advances Minorities Toward Technical Careers

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In the late 1960's, several professors of engineering from the University of California at Berkeley were asked about the enrollment of minority students in the school of engineering. They looked at the figures, which revealed a marked absence of minority students, then they investigated further to see if the problem might exist because the university was not trying hard enough to recruit qualified high-school students.

But what they found when they took a closer look was that a pool of minority students who were academically prepared to tackle the demanding engineering curriculum was not there.

After making that discovery, the group of engineers, working with a science teacher from Oakland Technical High School, decided to create a program that would prepare minority high-school students for careers in science, mathematics, and engineering.

The program began in 1970 with 25 students from the Oakland school. It has subsequently expanded to include about 3,300 students from 130 California high schools and a number of schools in Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington.

The program is called MESA, which stands for Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement. MESA is one of a growing number of programs, most funded entirely by industry, designed to remedy the dramatic underrepresentation of minorities in the fields of science and engineering.

This situation, which gained a wider recognition in the early 1970's, led to the development of programs designed to increase the number of minority students prepared to enter these fields.

Texas, for example, has a statewide program, and seven states in the Southwest have formed a consortium to improve minority students' precollege preparation for careers in engineering, according to Lloyd D. Cooke, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. In 1982, according to the council, between 4 and 5 percent of all engineering graduates were members of minority groups.

MESA, which sends about three-fourths of its students on to study science or engineering in college, is regarded as one of the most successful of the programs.

Public and Private Funding

It is also the only one to receive both public and private funds, according to Mr. Cooke.

"In business terms, they've identified their market, they've identified their service, and they've stuck with it," says Theodore E. Lobman, project officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif., which has given MESA $1.5 million since 1976. "A lot of education programs, when they expand, run the risk of diluting to the point where they're no longer effective," Mr. Lobman says.

The program accomplishes its goal of increasing the number of "historically underrepresented mi-nority students who graduate from high school with the preparation to pursue math and science-based fields" through a variety of tactics, says Vinetta Jones-Sykes, the program's assistant director.

Headquartered at the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley, MESA operates through 16 university-based centers in California, which in turn work with local high schools.

In other states, university centers also work with satellite high schools. The California program subcontracts to these centers for an amount that totals half of their overall budget, Ms. Jones-Sykes says, and the centers must match that money with funds from industry.

One key aspect of the program is the care with which the administrators select schools and students to participate. "When we go into a school, one of the criteria is that it have a high minority enrollment," Ms. Jones-Sykes says. "But you look at the higher-level math and science classes, and the minority students are not enrolled there. So you get recommendations from teachers, and you encourage students in 9th grade to take geometry. The program is not for the whole school. Not everyone will be interested."

Students are chosen according to several criteria, she said, including their own interests and achievement, and teachers' recommendations. In Colorado, parents are also required to sign a form agreeing to become involved in the program, according to Miguel A. Garcia, director of MESA there.

Mr. Garcia looked at several other programs designed to prepare minority students for careers in science and engineering and decided that the MESA model was most flexible, and hence the most likely to be effective in Colorado, where the problem exists in both urban and rural areas.

The program's structure--described by Mr. Lobman as "infinitely adoptable and adaptable"--is frequently cited as one reason MESA has worked well.

With a MESA advisor--usually a science or mathematics teacher--to run the program, students belong to a MESA club. The clubs should be small--generally around 25 members--to make sure that the program is able to deliver to each student what it promises, officials say. Those involved in the program who do report problems say they are generally attributable to overly large groups of students.

Under the auspices of the club, the students are tutored, take field trips, participate in intensive summer programs, and meet with scientists and engineers. They also receive counseling about their college and career plans and are helped to prepare for college-admission tests.

Students may also work for financial "incentive awards," which are given to those who achieve at high levels in mathematics and science. In California, the awards are $50; amounts vary in the other participating states.

The students who participate must take demanding courses. "By preparation, we mean three to four years of math, at least through trigonometry, science through chemistry and physics, and four years of college-preparatory English," Ms. Jones-Sykes says.

"What we want to require is not the minimum. We want them to be prepared to compete with the kids they're going to meet in the four-year institutions," she says.

Academically Competitive

A recent evaluation of MESA, commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation and conducted by the Center for the Study of Evaluation at ucla, suggests that the program is indeed turning out students whose performance is academically competitive. The study concludes that MESA is "well managed" and reports that participating students' performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Test is on par with that of the total population of college-bound seniors both in California and nationally. This is so, the study says, "despite the fact that the sampled schools were among the lowest-achieving schools in the state."

In New Mexico, where MESA began in six schools last September, program officials are already beginning to see results. "Of what I can report, at one school, gpa's have risen 18 percent out of total school population," says Patrick Gomez, director of the MESA program in New Mexico.

The students, he says, are enjoying the program. "The basic excitement is there."

Their successful attainment of rigorous academic goals is not the only reason MESA students succeed, according to people familiar with the program. Another factor is MESA's ability to offer students new environments and choices.

"A major task that MESA has is to break these kids lose from a noneducational environment," says Dennis Laurie, director of community relations for the Atlantic Richfield Company, which has supported the program for about five years.

The environment in which the students live and go to school, he points out, may not be conducive to studying. And in many cases, even those in which parents do encourage their children, the students may lack role models. Many of the MESA graduates are the first members of their families to attend college, Ms. Jones-Sykes says. And teachers and counselors are not necessarily as supportive of minority students as they should be.

By offering other environments and providing minority engineers and scientists as role models, Mr. Laurie says, MESA teaches the students that such careers are possibilities for them. "These kids do not have a sense of the possible," he says. "Their targets are too low. The idea of becoming an engineer never occurs to them. But when they go to a university and meet minority scientists and engineers, suddenly the sense of the possible strikes them. And it changes their lives."

"Ninety percent of the students do not have a role-model college graduate within their immediate or extended family," says Mr. Garcia of Colorado. He describes one girl, who had done well academically, but who had not known what to do with her abilities. "With MESA, she's already seen four or five different possibilities. 'I may not be an engineer, but I have learned that that's one of the possibilities,' she told me."

The financial awards, too, help make academic work seem legitimate to the those of the students' peers who may not consider studying a worthwhile way to spend time, and in many cases provide needed support for students' expenses, notes Mr. Laurie.

Program officials, as well as those who have helped 'support MESA, cite a variety of reasons for its success. One is that the program is "cost-effective"; the average per-pupil cost is between $300 and $400 per year. But perhaps the factor mentioned most frequently is that of focus: MESA has a narrow goal and is very careful to stick closely to it.

"It is a program that focuses on a real problem and that has decided to focus on a particular aspect of a problem," Ms. Jones-Sykes says. "It doesn't try to solve all the problems of the world. We have a very careful way of being very results-oriented. I think that's one of the reasons for the strong industry backing."

Stronger Industry Backing

Industry backing, which together with foundation funding supported the program entirely until 1979, is strong and growing stronger, according to Mr. Laurie of arco, who is the chairman of a MESA fundraising drive to raise $920,000 this year to match state funds. He began his campaign with 15 industrial sponsors and expects to have about 100 by the end of the year.

"In this current economic environment, it is very tough to raise money, but I'm finding it comparatively easy to succeed with MESA," Mr. Laurie says. "The corporations we're talking to understand that talented, capable people are coming out of the system. It is ensuring that minorities will not be left behind in this race we're all caught up in. For the purest and the most selfish of reasons, it makes sense to support MESA."

Mr. Lobman of the Hewlett Foundation links MESA's success with its ability to set and adhere to narrowly defined goals, including that of working with small numbers of able, motivated students. Another factor, he says, is its emphasis on gathering and analyzing data from participants; this provides a "quality control" mechanism that is very attractive to potential funders. "MESA is miles ahead of other programs,'' he says, "because it can tell you what it's doing."

Vol. 02, Issue 24, Page 1, 19

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