Hispanics/Latinos in STEM Careers

Technology April 2021 PREMIUM
Editor’s Note: Engineering Student Uses Bridge Design to Inspire Students to Pursue STEM Careers

When he was a young boy it was clear Juan Cardenas was going to be an engineer. “I loved playing with Legos,” he remembers. Recognizing his interest in and facility for engineering, the adults in his life encouraged him. As a student at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, New York Cardenas signed up for an engineering class. “I got to give it a try, and I really fell in love with it,” says Cardenas,

In 2108 Cardenas applied for and was awarded an internship with the New York State Bridge Authority. On his first day he began calculating the weight of one of the four anchorages (the structures to which the ends of a suspension bridge’s cables are secured), of the Bear Mountain Bridge. He pulled the original blueprints and applied some math. “I calculated the volume. From the volume I guessed about how much iron they used for reinforcement. And there was some weight of concrete and I was able to get an estimate of what it weighed. I think I was hitting about 25 million pounds,” says Cardenas, who will graduate from the State University of New York, New Paltz with a degree in mechanical engineering in May.

Creating an Authentic STEM Experience

Cardenas’s love of engineering is rivaled only by Kathryn Burke’s love of STEM/STEAM education. Burke, director of Historic Bridges of the Hudson Valley, has long held that the countless STEM initiatives in education haven’t translated into more careers because educators are unfamiliar with STEM fields. Of course they’re interested in STEM, “(they just) don’t know what opportunities there are,” says Burke.

To provide educators with a better understanding of the breadth of STEM career opportunities, Burke began offering master teachers a series of STEM/STEAM workshops at the Bear Mountain Bridge and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge (another Hudson River crossing) through a program called NYS Master Teachers. During these five-hour STEM workshops, Bridge Authority engineers made presentations, gave tours, and provided teachers with materials they could use in their classrooms. The goal was to help teachers create a more authentic STEM experience for their students. The COVID pandemic forced Burke to suspend the program, but she hopes to resume it in September.

When Burke met Cardenas in the engineering department at the Bridge Authority she immediately wanted him involved in her program. “He’s a perfect person to help these educators and their students understand where they can go with STEM opportunities,” says Burke. “He’s very passionate about engineering.”

Skills All Engineers Need

Cardenas was born in Paraguay where his grandmother raised him while his parents migrated to the US and created a life for the family. At age seven he came to the US where he was reunited with his parents. Burke calls Cardenas “the real deal.” Like many college students his path to a degree had several twists and turns. “He’s gone to community college, to four-year college, back to community college and back to four-year college,” says Burke.

Burke asked Cardenas to compile a list of skills one needs to be an engineer and present them to the master teachers as part of her workshops. Cardenas gladly accepted the challenge. “From the get go I was all in. I fell in love with the idea,” says Cardenas. He opened PowerPoint on his computer and in his mind reflected on his trajectory to engineering. He asked himself, “What did I need to know to become an engineer? What kind of a role model would I have wanted?” says Cardenas.

As he answered these questions, his PowerPoint presentation grew. It became clear to Cardenas that PowerPoint was inadequate for what he wanted to impart to his audience.

He’d have to produce a video.

He wrote a script and using his iphone he screen-recorded engineering videos to include in his production. “I had to find very specific videos that matched what I was saying in the voice over,” says Cardenas. When it was complete, his video had all the characteristics of one professionally produced. “It’s phenomenal,” says Burke.

To bring his in-person presentation alive, Cardenas designed and printed an educational model of the Bear Mountain Bridge. He once again unrolled the musty original blue prints and using the dimensions of every beam and piece of iron, he developed a CAD model. “Once I developed the CAD model I had to figure out how to take it apart and assemble it in a way that best represented what the bridge itself is,” says Cardenas. He used a 3D printer to print the 300 plastic pieces that comprise the model and assembled it. “It was about the size of a large suitcase,” says Cardenas.

A Minority in the Field

In addition to presenting to the master teachers in Burke’s workshops, Cardenas also presented his video and offered tours of the bridges to students who attend city schools with minority populations. Burke would open the museum’s classroom to students in 8th through 12th grade. Cardenas would show his video, present the three-foot model, and provide a tour of the bridge. “They all loved it,” says Cardenas. “I was watching all these kids sit down, they would put smiles on their faces, they would raise their hands, and ask questions. It was exactly what I was looking for,” says Cardenas. He welcomed the questions, remembering that as a young student he never had the opportunity to ask engineers about their field or careers or about the skills necessary to be an engineer. “For these kids to have the opportunity it was huge for me,” says Cardenas.

As part of the tour Cardenas would take students below the bridge. Looking up at the massive iron structure they’d ask specific questions about the engineering of the bridge. “When Juan is talking and describing different things on the bridge and they’re asking him questions, they just eat it up,” says Burke. He would ask the students if they can think of any jobs or fields in engineering that they had not thought about before, she says.

Currently Cardenas is putting the finishing touches on a seven foot scale-model of the Bear Mountain Bridge, with a ratio of 7 to 2255. It sits on a plank of wood that was hewn from a tree that grew on Bear Mountain. Cardenas has made his CAD design of the model available to any high school or middle school engineering class that has access to a 3D printer.

Cardenas realizes he is a minority in the engineering field and would like to see more Latinos enter the field. “I’m one of a few. I know there are creative minds out there that don’t necessarily have the opportunity I had to get to where I am. If I could speak to those people I would want them to know there are a lot of ways to get into engineering. You don’t have to go to a high-end university. There are high-skilled jobs out there. Manufacturers will pay for these classes and educate the individual willing to learn engineering. It’s a nice thing to see Latinos get involved,” says Cardenas. 

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