The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley had a special, first-time visitor Oct. 6 to its 14th annual Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology week – U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Duncan, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, was invited to meet with Rio Grande Valley education leaders and address more than 100 Valley high school students by one of HESTEC’s founders, U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15).
In his opening remarks, Duncan praised Hinojosa’s leadership in promoting educational opportunities for Valley students and encouraged students to graduate from high school and continue their educational journey beyond that.
“I don’t care how much money you have or you don’t have, or that your family has or doesn’t have. Each year our department puts out $150 billion dollars in grants and loans. If you work hard, get good grades, you are a leader. You are going to have an opportunity to go to college,” he said.
Duncan praised HESTEC as a model for the nation in its efforts to expose students to all the opportunities available in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and for helping prepare students for the workplace.
“So many jobs of the future are in STEM fields,” he said. “Our country needs your talents, we need your expertise. We need for you to be the job creators and the entrepreneurs going forward.”
Duncan also joined in a panel discussion, moderated by UTRGV Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations Veronica Gonzales, with nationally recognized PSJA Independent School District Superintendent Daniel King and two 11th-grade students – Raven Gonzalez from Donna North High School and Kianna Silva from Brownsville Veterans Early College High School.
Duncan said his father was a professor at the University of Chicago and his mother ran an inner-city tutoring program, so he was destined to pursue a career in education and saw early on how education could make a difference. Prior to his cabinet appointment, Duncan was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools District.
“I didn’t just see education as the great equalizer,” he said. “Education sometimes was the difference in whether kids lived or didn’t live.”
He stressed how important it is that adults create opportunities and support young people in their efforts to succeed.
Asked about Obama’s ConnectED Initiative – which aims to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband in five years – Duncan said the FCC is investing $5 billion each year in the effort.
“We are passionate about power of technology. We hope it will drive equity and level the playing field for kids, whether it is in rural communities or inner-city communities or Native American communities, and to also drive excellence,” he said.
“We want all of you students to be able to learn anything you want, anytime, anywhere, whether it is a passion for robotics, or chemistry or to learn Mandarin. This is going to be a game changer for kids in underserved communities,” Duncan said of ConnectED.
He talked about the benefits of blended learning – relying both on excellent teaching and use of digital and online tools – and recommended that school districts invest their often limited resources in providing students with the latest technology devices, rather than in textbooks, which too often are outdated once published, he said.
Duncan touted his department’s efforts to produce more student interest in pursuing STEM careers by investing in career preparation programs and hiring more STEM teachers at all grade levels. The Valley has done a good job of bringing together educators, teachers, students, parents and employers to discuss their respective needs, he said.
“There is no reason why this community couldn’t lead the tech revolution,” Duncan said.
He also had students pull out their cellphones to demonstrate the Department of Education’s College Scorecard site, where students can learn more about the more than 7,000 higher education institutions, including the size, programs offered, average cost, earnings after graduation and other important factors in choosing a college.
A Q&A session followed the panel discussion, with Duncan answering questions posed by students.
Gonzalez, one of Valley students who participated on the panel, said his attendance at HESTEC since seventh grade has inspired an interest in robotics and in pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. He said meeting Duncan was “amazing.”
“It gives us (students) the opportunity to show him our leadership,” said Gonzalez, who was able to participate in a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute scholarship program in Washington, D.C., last summer.
JoAnn Gama, co-founder, president and superintendent of IDEA Public Schools had an opportunity to meet with Duncan.
“He hammered home his point (about the use of technology in the future) by asking the students to raise their hand if they have a smartphone … and to have a member of his staff show them how to access the College Scorecard,” she said. “Not only is he talking about education and technology being the future … he is proving it to all the educators in the room about having the kids show that they have access. The more that districts can do, or schools can do, to leverage that technology to teach kids, the better.”
Gama said STEM is big, and more high schools are making sure they offer STEM courses and that students have access.
“We’re not where we need to be yet, but we are headed in that direction,” she said.