At-Home Students Get Boost Toward Science and Engineering

  • ODU REYES program presentation, showing Raul Briceno and Giovanna Genard

Giovanna Genard, ODU’s assistant vice president for strategic communication and marketing, and Raul Briceno, a Jefferson Lab research scientist and an assistant professor at ODU, lead a REYES virtual presentation.

Jefferson Lab and Old Dominion University team up to offer free webcasts on physics, astronomy, artificial intelligence, gaming tech and more

NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Raul Briceno, born in Venezuela to a middle-class family, bucked some cultural and economic headwinds to become a physicist.

Today, he’s a research scientist at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and an assistant professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. And he’s working to make sure other Latinx youngsters with an interest in or talent for science and engineering have an easier path to similar success.

Briceno and colleagues at ODU and Jefferson Lab developed a summer outreach program called REYES — Remote Experience for Young Engineers and Scientists—featuring free live webcasts intended to reach a global audience, including engaging Latinx high school students. They enlisted esteemed speakers, panelists, even fun trivia games to whet the appetites of aspiring scientists stuck at home by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They had planned to end the eight-week program come fall, but the positive response has been so overwhelming — and not just from students — that REYES is continuing with monthly speakers at least through the end of this year, while organizers are working to secure funding to bring the full program back next summer.

“We had over 7,000 participants from 115 countries with close to 20,000 views,” Briceno said. “And the audience has really diversified quite a bit — we had people of all ages, even some faculty, retired folks, people from all backgrounds.

“We realized that there was quite a need and thirst for having experts talk about interesting science at a level that is accessible to just about anybody.”

Jefferson Lab Director Stuart Henderson is the next keynote speaker. On Thursday, Nov. 19, Henderson will discuss “Big Science” — the way in which various scientific communities join together to develop the remarkable scientific instruments used to propel discovery, from the tiniest subatomic particles to galactic gravitational waves.

On Dec. 1, the keynote speaker is physicist and veteran NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa — the first Hispanic woman to go to space and the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“Even though we started this program because of the pandemic, the realization is there’s a huge demand worldwide,” Briceno said. “We’re talking to kids in Ethiopia, China and Mexico. It would be impossible to bring these kids over here, but they still want to learn and they still want to engage, and there are not many opportunities where they can talk to an astronaut or to the director of a national lab.”

Webcasts this summer featured such topics as astronomy, artificial intelligence, solving crimes through entomology, engineering, coronavirus simulation with gaming technologies, psychology and Python computer coding.

Surveys conducted afterward show that REYES boosted awareness about science all around Hampton Roads, and also yielded a greater interest in studying at ODU.

REYES has its roots in a program called HALES — High-Achieving Latinxs in Engineering & Science — that brought Latinx high school students from around Virginia and Puerto Rico to Hampton Roads for a week last summer to tour the lab, ODU and NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton. Briceno had also previously helped develop a summer internship program at ODU for students from Mexico.

The idea was to conduct a HALES program this summer with even more students, before the coronavirus scuttled those plans. But Briceno and his colleagues didn’t want to give up their outreach. Once it was decided that their outreach efforts would move to virtual platform, they opened up REYES to individuals of all backgrounds. 

“We’re continuing to build those bridges,” he said. “The Latinx community is near and dear to all of us. Most of us are bilingual. Most of the REYES members creating the program are Latinx.”

Other REYES members include Carlos Hernandez-Garcia, a Jefferson Lab senior staff scientist, and Giovanna Genard, ODU’s assistant vice president for strategic communication and marketing. Genard is a REYES co-chair.

Briceno knows firsthand how difficult it can be for Latinx students to pursue an education in science and engineering. He fled with his family to the U.S. in 2000 to escape political turmoil in Venezuela.

While in high school in Florida, Briceno was keen on math and science, but initially intended to study philosophy in college.

“Then I kind of struggled with the fact that you never have a definitive answer in philosophy,” he said. “So, physics felt like a natural avenue to ask important questions and, perhaps, get some answers.”

Briceno was the first in his family to become a physicist. He struggled against doubts from some family members about the wisdom of his career choice.

“Like, ‘You’re not going to make money with that,’” Briceno recalled. “And if you don’t know anybody who studies physics, you don’t see a path, so you’re less likely to go into it than, say, engineering or something more practical, like medicine.”

The lack of Latinx representation in physics is pervasive.

A 2019 survey by the National Science Foundation found that Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. have increased their share of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering (S&E) over the last two decades. But, out of all S&E fields, Latinos are least likely to get their degrees in the physical sciences (9%) than in other fields like psychology (17%) and social sciences (15%).

The NSF credits high-Hispanic-enrollment institutions (HHEs) for their key role in training Latinos for doctoral studies. But, even with that assist, underrepresented minorities, including Latinos, who comprised 27% of the U.S. population in 2017, were awarded only 11% of S&E doctorates.

Briceno believes that students interested in science and engineering really need to see themselves represented in those fields in high school and beyond.

“The roots go deep,” Briceno said. “I think something has to shift in the educational system to attract the talent. Because the talent is there. We’re just not tapping into it.”

In REYES surveys, students said the webcasts were an inspiration:

“This program made me realize I definitely want to pursue a career in STEM, and it made me more passionate about it.”

“I think that my favorite activity was definitely the Women in Engineering panel, because it empowered me so much.”

“After the lessons, I decided to learn more about aerospace engineering. I had a passion for the subject before, and this course helped me fall in love with the field even more!”

“My mind was blown away.”

“I loved every lecture from the bottom of my heart.”

Briceno said he feels a duty to keep making science accessible, and to help others see its beauty, no matter their background, education or birthplace.

“Seeing the flood of interest and positive feedback from people around the world is really moving,” he said. “I wouldn’t have expected it to be so successful and so much in demand. It’s definitely one of the things I’m most proud of.”

REYES webcasts are taped and available for viewing for free on the program website and on YouTube. For more information, go to odu.edu/reyes or http://facebook.com/reyesodu

By Tamara Dietrich

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, kcarter@jlab.org

Editor's note: Clarification added Nov. 25, 2020

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.