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The Magic of Science : Latino Engineers Put on a Show to Interest Youngsters in College

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kittridge Street School sixth-grader Luis Ramirez had his future firmly in mind as he attended a daylong program at Cal State Northridge on Friday intended to interest youngsters in science careers.

“I want to be a scientist,” the bespectacled youngster said, “because I want to do things for other people that will help to make their lives better.”

The program was not just for students with firm goals like Ramirez, however.

“Our mission is twofold,” said Science Day co-chairman Andy Carrasco, a member of the CSUN Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which organized the event.

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“We are here to enlighten these students on higher education and specifically gear them toward science and engineering as careers.”

Latino engineers from the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International turned science into a magic show, using tuning forks that broke glass, helium balloons that made your voice sound like Donald Duck, and pulleys that enabled one girl to overpower two of her male classmates at tug-o-war.

“I didn’t know science could be so fun,” said 11-year-old June Suvanwong of Arminta Street School, one of about 400 sixth-graders who attended from eight predominantly Hispanic elementary schools in the San Fernando Valley.

“Now I want to be an astronaut,” said a classmate, Juan Navarro, 11. “I know it will be hard, but now I know it will be fun, too.”

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The idea of making science and mathematics fun is not a new one to Carrasco, a former student of Garfield High’s renowned calculus instructor Jaime Escalante, who inspired the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver.”

You tell them that if they have the desire, they can do anything, Carrasco said. He said he was given a push by Escalante “in the 12th grade to get me where I am today, but it’s best to get kids interested in the sciences early and show them the excitement of it all.”

A large number of the engineering group’s 120 members shuttled eager and anxious sixth-graders around the student center to various activities, exhibits and programs, which included the chemistry and physics magic show and a role-modeling session.

“The key is to reach out to young people before they get lost,” said Belinda Acuna, director of the Mathematic Engineering Science Achievement Project at CSUN, referring to the high percentage of minorities who drop out of high school. Students must be taught that Latinos “have contributed to this society in large proportions . . . because one of the barriers to students’ achievement is their lack of knowledge of their own community.”

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The events of the day enlightened many students and even changed the minds of a few.

“I didn’t want to go to college at first because I thought it was just for certain people, and boring,” Kittridge sixth-grader Miriam Triyillo, 11, said as she watched campus life from the student center. “But, there are so many things to do here. So many different people. I know I can do anything I want now.”

Luis Ramirez glanced compassionately toward his classmate.

“I know about these things because my mother tells me a lot,” he said. “But this day is good for those kids who don’t.”

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