As the son of a migrant farm-working mother and an Air Force veteran father, Reynaldo Guerra said his path to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Houston came about by chance.
In his junior year of high school, Guerra was failing out of his math classes and, as a result, was kicked off of the basketball team. Motivated by his desire to continue playing basketball, Guerra said he began practicing his math skills as hard as he practiced his basketball skills. It didn’t take long before Guerra realized he was not only good at mathematics – he actually enjoyed it.
“We are absolutely in need of engineers and scientists in this country, and especially in the city of Houston,” Guerra said. “But when you go into some of the schools in low-income areas of Houston, you see that most of these kids have never met a scientist or engineer before. Some of them have never even heard the word ‘engineering’ in their lives.”
Guerra graduated from the UH Cullen College of Engineering in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. As a student at UH, Guerra was involved in the student organization MAES, which then stood for Mexican American Engineers and Scientists. Guerra and his MAES classmates took it upon themselves to inspire more students into pursuing STEM careers by organizing events at Houston-area schools to introduce K-12 students to tough engineering concepts with fun, hands-on projects.
“We would try to be mentors to local elementary and high school students,” Guerra said. “We wanted to get them excited about engineering and science and to try to get them to come pursue those fields at the University of Houston.”
Since graduating from the Cullen College, Guerra has enjoyed a successful engineering career. He currently serves as the senior LNG proposal development engineer at Dresser-Rand, and has held previous positions at NASA, Accenture and ExxonMobil. But the drive to continue inspiring Houston students to pursue STEM fields never left Guerra, and he eventually reached out to his former UH classmates to reignite their STEM outreach efforts in local schools.
Guerra and his former classmates soon formed Camp STEMovation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) workshops and activities into Houston-area schools in low-income neighborhoods.
“The kids absolutely love it,” Guerra said.
And it’s easy to see why. Camp STEMovation held an event called “STEAM Extravaganza” at Rick Schneider Middle School last March, where students participated in five hands-on STEAM workshops with kid-friendly superhero themes.
The workshop that Guerra taught began by teaching students some basic engineering principles, then challenging the students to build “super hero lairs” using strips of card stock paper and scotch tape. The students’ superhero lairs were then subjected to three tests.
In the first test, appropriately called “sky fall,” Guerra holds the student’s structure and drops it. For the second test, called “monster stomp,” Guerra stands on the superhero lair on one foot. The third and final test is for the superhero lairs to survive being struck by an asteroid. “So we take two big, fat, college-sized textbooks and pretend they are asteroids. Then we drop them on the superhero lair,” Guerra said.
The students are awarded points based on how well their superhero lair survived all three tests. They are also judged based on the aesthetics of their structure as well as how many materials they used to build it. The students with the most points at the end of the challenges won science kits and a trophy.
“You can see these light bulbs going off in these kids heads,” Guerra said, adding that many of the students approached him during the event to ask him more about what engineers do, what you have to do to major in engineering and what types of jobs professional engineers can obtain. “So all of a sudden they go from having not even having heard the word ‘engineering’ to this being an option for them.”
More importantly, Guerra said programs such as Camp STEMovation help to inspire students to pursue STEAM careers at an early age. “We’re starting when they’re young so they can be thinking about it as they go through their school career. The sooner you know about wanting to go into science or engineering, the better you can prepare yourself,” he said.
Guerra said he doesn’t plan to slow down on hosting STEAM events for local K-12 students anytime soon. In fact, he hopes to see Camp STEMovation’s offerings grow in scope and frequency as time goes on.
“We have had principals come to us crying because a student that was classified as ‘troubled’ and wasn’t engaged at all is suddenly inspired by an outside group that comes in and gets them excited about engineering and science,” Guerra said. “We’re creating experiences for these kids you can already tell will later have a profound impact on them. That’s the most exciting part to me.”
Watch our video of the STEAM Extravaganza here.