MESA program in East Bay creates future STEM professionals

MESA program in East Bay creates future STEM professionals
About 350 students from middle and high schools in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, including West Contra Costa Unified schools, took over the Cal State East Bay campus for a daylong science competition and educational experience on March 23, 2019.

Building a functional model glider is difficult enough. Getting one that will, after takeoff, make a right turn at just the right degree and then land a specified distance from the launch area?

Aerodynamics is not for amateurs.

But it is promising – and humbling all at once – to know that dozens of East Bay high school students took on that challenge at the annual MESA Day at the Cal State East Bay campus on Saturday, March 23.

About 350 students from middle and high schools in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, including West Contra Costa Unified schools, took over the Hayward college campus for a daylong science competition.

The event culminates a year of STEM studies for students at their respective schools through the MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) program, which was founded in 1970 to give students in underserved areas a pipeline to college and STEM fields.

MESA Day is sponsored by the Chevron Richmond Refinery, the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, Antioch Unified School District and the MESA program. The competitions are judged by Cal State East Bay faculty, undergraduate volunteers as well as STEM professionals from Chevron and other local companies.

These mentors play an important role in a competition where the project outcomes aren’t expected to always succeed. Their complex, frustratingly difficult projects included building a prosthetic arm that can stack cups, and designing and constructing complex machines that use multiple actions from multiple energy or mechanical sources, such as rubber bands, bungee cords and gravity, to launch a kick ball at a target.

The more they failed the closer they came to success, said Jason Singley, Dean of the College of Sciences, which helped coordinate the event along with the college’s Institute for STEM studies.

“This is real-world science, and the first time you do things, it usually doesn’t work,” Singley said. “And usually the seventh or eighth time it doesn’t work.”

Students were given time to scramble up a solution in cases where their projects failed.

“It’s about trial and error, about problem solving,” Singley said. “This whole day is an opportunity to reinforce that.”

The MESA program is an opportunity to introduce students from underserved areas to college life. It’s also an opportunity to introduce more young people in underserved areas to pursue high-demand STEM careers.

In California alone, about 18,000 students participate in the MESA program. And that means a healthy workforce filled with problem solvers in our future.

“I think it’s really important that they connect to the university see math and science in action, that it’s not just a textbooks,” said Juanita Muniz –Torres, deputy director of the MESA program. “And also to see role models, such as professors, take a genuine interest in their studies and careers.”

For just that reason, Nestor Paraiso, an analyst at the Chevron Richmond Refinery, said he’s volunteered at MESA Day ever year for the past five years.

“It’s a fun event, I enjoy seeing the kids and their excitement,” Paraiso said. “For us at Chevron, we work in the community and we’re also a part of the community. So we want to help out these young people any way we can.”

Added Janiene Langford, program manager for the Institute of STEM Education, which also coordinates the event, “We want students to think about college and the careers they can have down the road.”

Students taking top honors at MESA Day will go on to the regional championships in April, hosted on the Google campus. A statewide competition follows in May, with the national championships set to be held at the University of Arizona at Tucson in June.

The MESA program, which operates in eight states, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.