Solid training in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) discipline opens doors to boundless opportunities. However, some minority students cannot picture the possibility of going to college, let alone pursuing career in science or engineering. Mechanical engineering undergrad Ramon Roche-Maldonado hopes to break down barriers, and open children’s eyes to a future in STEM.
Roche-Maldonado has promoted science education to underserved communities since setting foot on campus four years ago. Within his first weeks in Madison, he made a beeline for the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), eager to lend a helping hand. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to do outreach,” he says.
Six years ago, students from SHPE visited his high school and nurtured him through the application process to UW-Madison. “They helped me get to where I am,” he says. “I wanted to help other students and continue the cycle.”
Throughout his four years at UW-Madison, he has worked tirelessly to promote science education among underrepresented students, “I want to motivate kids not just to go to college, but to pursue a STEM career in college,” says Roche-Maldonado.
He sees STEM education as a path to a brighter future, with long lasting effects for entire communities. Despite obstacles faced by minority students, he stays positive. “I know that long term it’s going to be better—that these students are going to make something of themselves and impact society in a positive manner,” he says.
In order to introduce high schoolers to engineering, Roche-Maldonado, in collaboration with the UW-Madison student chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society for Women Engineers, spearheaded a monthly event called the Pre Collegiate Initiative. At the Saturday meetings, students from Madison secondary schools come to campus to learn about each engineering discipline from researchers and industry representatives.
“The program helps introduce students to engineering and also make them feel more comfortable at the university. Even though these kids have lived in Madison their entire lives, many had never set foot on campus,” says Roche-Maldonado. The events also open children’s eyes to the thrill of scientific discovery and the rewards of research.
“We’ve had kids saying, ‘I want to get a PhD,’ after spending a day talking to grad students—when, at the beginning of the day, they didn’t know what a PhD was,” he says.
The Pre-Collegiate Initiative also introduces students to engineering in industry through relationships with national corporations headquartered in Wisconsin, such as SC Johnson, Cargill, and GE Healthcare. Presentations by company representatives are always a huge hit, says Roche-Maldonado.
“The students love it. They get free stuff, of course,” says Roche-Maldonado.
The students not only leave with souvenirs, but also inspiration that they, too, might someday contribute to engineering the next innovative car engine or MRI machine.
Roche-Maldonado credits his own passion for engineering to his high school science teacher, who taught classes through the Project Lead the Way program, a national hands-on STEM-instruction initiative. He remains close with his former teacher, returning often to his former school in Milwaukee to encourage students to pursue science.
“Students tend to listen when students go talk to them; that’s probably why I enjoy it so much,” he says.
As a first-generation college student born in Puerto Rico, Roche-Maldonado has personal experience with the obstacles to higher education faced by many minority students.
“Initially when I came to campus, freshman year, I felt very much alone,” he says.
From the classrooms to the dining halls, something as small as the typical food he was used to eating made him acutely aware of the differences between himself and the typical first-year Badger. “I didn’t grow up eating burgers and brats,” he says.
Additionally, having worked to help his family pay the bills since high school, he felt guilty for leaving his family and not being able to contribute while supporting himself throughout his studies.
“Most people don’t have to worry about their family struggling,” he says. “I send money to my family. I go back to Milwaukee. But sometimes I don’t have the weekend to study because I have to go back to Milwaukee and make sure bills are paid.”
Organizations such as SHPE, and the LEED Scholars program offered through the college Diversity Affairs Office, helped Roche-Maldonado find a sense of community on campus, and connected him with students facing similar struggles. Support from connections he made in these groups helped him keep up with his rigorous mechanical engineering coursework, while also pursuing multiple internships with Chrysler and Rockwell Automation.
After graduation in May, Roche-Maldonado is unsure exactly where his trajectory will take him. However, he knows that wherever he ends up, whether designing low-cost prostheses or power-injector pumps, he will promote STEM education.
“Outreach is a part of who I am,” he says. “It’s something I will continue to do whether I’m here, in Milwaukee, in Puerto Rico, or anywhere else in the United States.”