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News / Clark County News

Elevating STEM education: Vancouver nonprofit iUrban Teen encourages youth of color to get involved in field early

Students tour Clark College Columbia Tech Center's Mechatronics Technology program

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 1, 2024, 8:03pm
5 Photos
Students Bella Bir, 16, from left, and Garance Herve-Mignucci, 15, use vacuum technology to pick up different items during a tour of the Clark College Columbia Tech Center campus hydraulic and pneumatics systems lab.
Students Bella Bir, 16, from left, and Garance Herve-Mignucci, 15, use vacuum technology to pick up different items during a tour of the Clark College Columbia Tech Center campus hydraulic and pneumatics systems lab. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields are quickly growing, data shows. But diversity of the workforce lags.

iUrban Teen, a Vancouver nonprofit that supports local youth of color through STEM education and the arts, hopes to diversify the field by encouraging youth to get involved early.

On Monday, middle and high school students sponsored by iUrban Teen toured the Clark College Columbia Tech Center campus, where they experienced the nuts and bolts of its Mechatronics Technology program, which combines mechanical, electrical and robotic engineering.

“BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) youth are underrepresented when it comes to STEM. That’s why we like to present these opportunities to students of color, so they know these jobs are here for them,” said Simone Thomas, iUrban Teen’s program manager.

Mechatronics Technology, which launched fall 2017, is a two-year program where students learn electrical, mechanical and robotic systems. After finishing the program, students should be able to apply for entry-level jobs or continue their education with an associate’s degree in their subject, according to instructor Tina Jenkins.

Students who are part of Running Start, a statewide program to earn both high school and college credits, can also participate.

But people from all backgrounds study these courses. From high school students to those coming from the military or simply looking to change careers, it’s a program for everyone, Jenkins said.

Jobs in the mechatronics industry can include robotic engineering, mechanical design engineering, electromechanical equipment assembly and industrial engineering.

“I fell in love with this stuff,” said Jenkins, who joined the field after initially working in retail. “You learn a little bit of everything. You can incorporate everything together, or branch off into the specific areas you like. Mechatronics is so diverse.”

Inside the lab

Safety came first during Monday’s tour.

Students were given clear glasses to protect their eyes while inside the lab, before Jenkins led one group of students throughout the building.

Inside the hydraulic and pneumatic systems lab, classroom support technician Monte Gantka encouraged Bella Bir, 16, and Garance Herve-Mignucci, 15, to use vacuum technology to pick up different items. Pneumatics is the branch of mechanical engineering that deals with compressed air or gas.

Across the hall in the electronic systems lab, program manager Ken Luchini taught students about the curriculum they could expect within their first year.

The classes emphasize current concepts and provide practical, hands-on experience with robots and other industry equipment. Students who go through the program also learn control systems, which are widely used in manufacturing, Luchini explained.

During the tour, Allen Mose, 16, a student at Hudson’s Bay High School, said he wants to explore civil engineering or architecture after he graduates.

“I’ve always liked making stuff. I’d like to do it on a bigger scale and build something that helps people, like homeless shelters or housing,” Mose said. “It definitely feels great to be a part of (iUrban Teen). Knowing they’re looking out for my people feels good.”

Latino and Black workers are underrepresented in the STEM field, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering. Latino workers represent 14 percent of STEM workers, while Black workers represent only 9 percent of STEM workers.

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iUrban Teen wants to bridge that gap by increasing awareness about STEM careers like mechatronics, and providing mentoring and internship opportunities for underrepresented youth.

“It’s really important for BIPOC kids to see there are people that look like them when they come into these spaces,” Thomas said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.