KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Culture connects us, and science is more accessible when it retains a human dimension.
But Latinos are underrepresented in STEM fields, according to the United States Department of Education. Only 12% of the STEM workforce is Latino.
Research shows teams solve problems faster when they're cognitively diverse.
Atenas Mena, co-director of Clear Air Now, Daniel Ordonez, BIM specialist at HDR, and Pedro Constanzo, VP of aviation and federal group at Burns & McDonnell, are three Latinos in STEM working to make Kansas City better.
Pedro moved to the U.S. in college, but Mena and Ordonez are first-generation Mexican-Americans. Their parents both made the hard decision to leave Chihuahua, Mexico, to move to the U.S.
While each has a different story, the three share one thread that ties them together — incorporating their culture into their work.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to Mena, Ordonez and Constanzo?
One of Constanzo's favorite engineering memories includes going beyond the numbers.
While working on a six-year project in Burlington, Vermont, for the Air National Guard, Constanzo said the opportunity to make human connections only enhanced the technical excellence provided by Burns & McDonnell.
"I went to the major's house, and we cooked dinner," he said. "I cooked rice for him and chicken. And his wife cooked. And that’s what it is about — we’re doing projects, we’re connecting with our clients and delivering success. So that one resonated with me.”
For Mena, it's about giving back to her community. She grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and credits her ability to speak Spanish as the perfect bridge to bringing policy into action.
The majority of her work has centered around solving air pollution problems in the Armourdale and Argentine areas, where they predominately speak Spanish.
“In Armourdale, for example, the life expectancy is cut short by 22 years. And that’s a lifetime. ... What can you do with 22 years of your life?" Mena said. "So that means we are also affecting our economy because people aren’t able to work as long, [and] we are affecting our health care system because now we are seeing more chronic health problems to be able to address. It’s also going to increase the likelihood of poverty [and] how education is impacted. So health is very integrated into everything we do.”
And with Ordonez, in his experience starting out in the field as a young technical drawer, he's already heavily invested in a project in his backyard.
“My favorite project is probably the one I’ve been primarily on, it’s called Nelson. Basically, it’s a huge wastewater treatment plant out in Overland Park, and it’s one of our bigger projects here in the office. It’s fun because there are actually a lot of levels to the project — everywhere from having to demolish some of the wastewater facility and re-do it while it is still in use. So there are a lot of different phases that go into that.”
STEM fields of study promote problem-solving, critical thinking and innovation. The ability to critically think and challenge the standards of innovation are an important part of the puzzle that keeps the economy moving forward.
What advice do Mena, Ordonez and Constanzo have for the next generation?