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By Dave Paiz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 9, 1998

Students get leg up on technical careers


Nicholas Valenzuela
Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA judges (from left to right) medical student Nick Gonzalez, research associate Randi Weinstein, graduate student Marco Celaya and bio chem senior Faridy Cocco consider a DNA model entry as part of the science and engineering competition in the middle school category. The DNA model competition was held Sunday on campus and included middle schools and high schools from all over Arizona.

Future scientists and engineers from across the state squared off at the UA Saturday during MESA Day '98 - an annual skills competition among middle school and high school students to stimulate interest in high-tech careers.

"I want to be an engineer, that's why I came," said 16-year-old Abigail Dealejandro, a sophomore from Dysart High School in Sun City West, near Phoenix.

"What's unique about MESA Day is that it pairs high school and middle school students with practicing engineers from all over the state," said Michael Duran, the University of Arizona's statewide academic outreach director and Arizona Math Engineering Science Achievement executive director.

More than 900 students attended Saturday's event and worked alongside professionals from companies like Raytheon Systems, Honeywell Inc., USWest Communications and the Salt River Project.

The competition consisted of 22 individual events including students writing essays, giving technical presentations, building windmills and constructing DNA models from recyclable materials. Team medals were awarded for each individual event and tallied up at the end of the day to determine an overall winner.

"It (MESA Day) is really cool because it makes learning fun - it makes you want to learn more," said Rachael Maloney, a freshman at Rincon High School.

"The competition for engineers and technically trained people is just tremendous," said Elton Humphreys, human resources director for Honeywell's Southwest region.

"It (MESA Day) is a long-term recruiting strategy for us," he added.

MESA is a statewide program first launched in Tucson in 1984 as part of UA's Early Outreach program. Early Outreach targets high school and middle school students from underrepresented socio-economic backgrounds and encourages them to pursue a college education. High school and middle school MESA clubs try to lure students toward more technically-oriented career fields.

What originally began with five schools and 50 students has grown to include 40 schools and nearly 2,000 students statewide.

"Better than 90 percent of the students who participate (in MESA) do go on to higher education," Duran said.

MESA students that do go on to attend universities are often hired by Early Outreach to encourage others to set their sights on college.

"It (MESA) helped me to believe in myself," said 23-year-old Johnny Hordge, an agriculture and biosystems engineering student who is also a UA Early Outreach student mentor.

Hordge has been involved with the MESA program since he was a middle school student in 1989 and is now in a position to encourage others to follow their dreams.

"If I can help another kid get to where I'm at - that's good," said Hordge.

Each high school and middle school campus in the MESA program has a science or math teacher under contract to the UA. Each teacher serves as an adviser responsible for implementing a program in accordance with UA guidelines.

"It (the MESA program) is just unparalleled what we're trying to do here," said UA engineering and mathematics alumnus Harold Campbell, now a math instructor and the MESA program director at Flowing Wells High School.

"We're not just going to tell you you can do this - we're going to show you how," he added.

Flowing Wells won the MESA Day competition its first two years in the program. Past MESA club presidents are now attending universities like Stanford and Cornell.

Campbell cited student motivation and seeing former classmates go on to prestigious schools as the main reasons for Flowing Well's winning record.

"The (MESA) program makes dreams come true," Campbell said.

Even with the success of MESA at Flowing Wells, Duran said the program still faces fundamental challenges.

"At its most basic level - keeping these students interested in math, science, and engineering is the greatest challenge," he said.

In an attempt to maintain student interest in science, engineering and higher education in general, Duran said Early Outreach is using innovative tactics like placing UA peer mentors in high school classrooms and giving parents a more active role in their child's education.

Many MESA students have parents who, for economic and cultural reasons, were as children discouraged from attending college and pursuing technical careers.

Duran said the MESA program gets parents and students involved in outside projects to let parents see first-hand the value of what their children are doing.

"It (MESA) empowers parents to be really strong advocates for their children's education," he said.

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