With a conference for middle school students on March 3, Palomar College spreads awareness of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) education and employment in the region.

SAN MARCOS — Growing up in North County, Mireya Gutierrez-Aguero was good at math, and she knew it. Even as a young girl, she was aware of her photographic memory and her way with numbers and equations.

“Math was my favorite subject,” she recalled. “I had a great experience in elementary school. Then my family changed school districts and I became a mediocre student. While it wasn’t directly said, I knew certain things weren’t for me.”

Among the things that she sensed were not “for her” was math. It would be at least a decade before girls were strongly encouraged to pursue careers in the interrelated fields now known by the acronym STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

Gutierrez-Aguero did not give up on her education, but she did take a different path. She started her college career at Palomar, transferred to Cal State San Marcos and went on to earn her bachelor’s, master’s and, last fall, her Doctor of Education from San Diego State University.

Now back at Palomar College, she has come full-circle, in a way. Gutierrez-Aguero is the Supervisor of Palomar’s STEM Center—a collaborative workspace on the top floor of the Natural Sciences building where students study for their STEM classes.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, there was hardly an empty seat as at least 100 students discussed physics, scoured textbooks on loan from the center, worked calculators and solved complex problems in small groups.

At the front desk, Abbey Williams, a Palomar sophomore majoring in Electrical Engineering, said she discovered the center during her second semester and started visiting frequently. Now she’s on staff.

“It’s very collaborative and the students here really work together,” said 19-year-old Williams, adding that when she looks around the room she sees “a lot of people who have the same goals.”

When especially tough problems come up—as they naturally do in the course of studying calculus, physics, physiology or any other STEM subject—Williams said “the best thing is to talk it out with other students, and the atmosphere here is really conducive to that.”

Second annual Palomar College STEM Conference

Saturday, March 3, 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Palomar College

1140 W. Mission Road

San Marcos, CA 92069

Admission is free, but registration is required. Visit http://goo.gl/K1eFwd to download the application.

For Gutierrez-Aguero, the hum of a busy STEM Center packed with students is music to her ears. Her experience as a young teenager left her with a passion for spreading awareness of the opportunities that lie within the STEM fields.

It seems to be paying off. At the Palomar College STEM Center, some 2,250 students logged over 27,000 sessions during the 2016-17 school year.

And Gutierrez-Aguero’s team, along with a host of student volunteers and faculty, is preparing to host the second annual STEM Conference on March 3. The conference is a free event for North County middle schoolers and their parents to spark interest in STEM as an educational and career path.

“This is our effort to create awareness early on, and make sure that students know what STEM is all about in our community,” she said, adding that the goal is to spark students’ interest in middle school so they’ll start moving in the direction of the STEM fields in high school.

Conference organizers are hoping for 300 students and 100 adults—parents and educators are welcome—and are planning 20 breakout sessions on topics such as DNA forensics, drone technology and “Dimension Theory.” There are also keynote speakers, hands-on activities and demonstrations, and a STEM Fair. All of it is provided free of charge to attendees.

Gutierrez-Aguero is also passionate about reversing the perception that STEM education is a better fit for any specific demographic profile of student. STEM education is for everyone who wants to be competitive in a strong and growing job market, she says.

“Especially for first-generation students, a lot of times the worry is, ‘How do we put food on the table?’ That’s the priority,” she said. “I was that low-income, first-generation student. Neither of my parents had formal education. I know I could have thrived in mathematics. In the STEM Center, it is my duty and responsibility to create that space and sense of belonging for everyone. I take it very seriously.”

Now a mother of three sons—ages 8, 9 and 14—Gutierrez-Aguero preaches the same message as she does in her role at Palomar: “As a parent, I think the arts are critical,” she said. “But when we talk (about college) I ask them: ‘What do you want to major in? Is it going to be science, technology, engineering or mathematics? And don’t tell me I didn’t give you a choice.’”

Looking back on her career, she said, “I can’t help thinking, ‘What would Mireya be like if she had a STEM degree?’ But you know what? It’s OK. Because here I am, promoting STEM in higher education. And I’m very proud of that.”

STEM Center hours: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Located in the Natural Sciences Building (NS-310).

At the Center, students have access to:

  • Supplemental instruction
  • Tutoring
  • STEM-specific counseling
  • Academic advising
  • Reference material for checkout, including textbooks