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CSULB’s LEAP program empowers Hispanic STEM students with mentorship and experience to land jobs

Thanks to an ambitious new program on campus, 16 Hispanic science, technology, engineering and math students at Long Beach State are getting a foot in the door at local companies.

LEAP, an “active learning education program,” was launched this fall to guide more Hispanic students into the STEM workforce, where according to Pew Research Center data, Hispanics comprised just 7% of the U.S. STEM workers in 2018.

For Ehsan Barjasteh, a professor in the College of Engineering and the program director of LEAP, training Hispanic students for leadership positions at STEM companies is a first step toward fixing this lack of diversity he’s witnessed throughout his 10 years of industry experience.

“I noticed in some industries you really don’t see any diversity,” Barjasteh said. “And so what this means is you don’t see any diversity in terms of thinking and even bringing different ideas. I wanted to bring more minorities to these companies and hopefully get that diversity gap lower and lower.”

According to LEAP’s student outreach and recruitment coordinator Elaine Bernal, who is a chemistry lecturer, eight undergraduate Hispanic students from the College of Engineering and College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics have been working with LEAP since the beginning of the semester. 

Through the program, these students are working on year long projects with local companies for a $5,500 stipend.

Bernal said student recruitments increased to 16 students by the end of November, and she encouraged students to apply for spring 2021. 

The students who are eventually selected, Barjasteh said, will learn to become industry leaders.

“We are working on the employability of these students,” Barjasteh said.“So they are being trained with these companies and the hope is they are going to be hired by that company or similar companies.”

The program has already recruited four industry partners in its first year, including Boeing, NextGen Aeronautics, Alpha Star and Northrop Grumman, and students help solve real problems and launch new products.

Emel Demircan, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, is a faculty mentor in the LEAP program. Her team of students is working on a product with NextGen Aeronautics, which they hope to release by the end of spring 2021.

“One student is helping with the software programming, another student is helping with the 3D-printing and prototyping, another is helping with the biomechanical modeling and data collection and another student is helping with the business aspect like contacting the customers and so on,” Demircan said.

LEAP largely operates on the $2 million in grant funds it was awarded by the National Science Foundation for its innovation. According to Barjasteh, implementing a mentorship system with professors like Demircan is a big part of what makes the program innovative.

Participants are placed in teams of four students and each team has a collection of advisors to help them successfully execute their projects, including an industry mentor from the company they’re paired with, a faculty mentor whose expertise best matches that company’s project, a business advisor to help them manage project funds and a compliance advisor to ensure regulations are being met.

Apart from mentors, the program uniquely requires students to take a business course, covering topics from accounting to business management.

“The course adds a lot of value in terms of being introduced to business concepts that a lot of engineering and science students lack,” Barjasteh said. “Being Hispanics also, there is an advantage in students taking this course because, if you look at the socioeconomic status of these students, most of them are not coming from very wealthy families so it’s a tool for them to use to grow in their careers.”

While LEAP has found overall success despite the pandemic, this has not been without some difficulty. 

“The first year we started focusing on mostly modeling or computational-based projects as opposed to experimental-based projects due to the restrictions we have in terms of using the labs,” Barjasteh said. “That kind of shifted our direction and postponed our activities a little bit but overall, right now we are on the right track.”

Some of these lab restrictions include limiting occupancy to only two students at a time, which Demircan said has already proven challenging when she tried to give her team a tour of her lab space two weeks ago.

Despite such challenges, Demircan said she has already noticed the impact the program has on students and is confident students will find success through it.

“This is gonna be really impactful for the long-term career and future of our students,” Demircan said. “I think they are lucky to be in this community, Cal State Long Beach, where there are several opportunities for Hispanic students to achieve success. I hope I will be involved next year and I’m looking forward to it.”

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