California Students Get Engineering Experience at Energy Giant

Students say that real-world experience affirmed their love of engineering.

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David Alvarez isn't sure where he wants to go to college—but when he decides, he'll already have one thing going for him: a summer internship at one of America's five largest corporations.

Last summer, the Richmond, Calif., senior worked at Chevron, measuring densities and viscosities of crude oils at the company's refinery in the city. A few years earlier, he couldn't tell the difference between different types of engineering.

That changed when he entered Richmond High School's engineering academy as a sophomore, where he has taken a variety of classes in the subject.

"While I was in class, I thought I would never get to do this in the real world," he says. "Once I saw what they do at Chevron, I saw the purpose of the things I was learning." Alvarez realized that the lab equipment he used in his biotechnology class was the same as the equipment he'd use at Chevron. "I already knew how to use it," he says. "It made me more excited about engineering because I already have experience, so I know what it'll be like when I graduate college."

[Learn about schools that are using game design to teach STEM.]

Alvarez got the internship through Project SEED, a four-decade-old organization that helps place urban youth in professional development positions at companies. Former U.S. Undersecretary of Education Linus Wright has said that the project is "the least expensive program that you can place in our schools, particularly when you look at the results."

Joe Laymon, vice president of human resources at Chevron, says recruiting students like Alvarez is important for the company's future.

"It's unrealistic to think that the United States can continue to have its competitive lead without having a larger number of STEM-degreed individuals," he says. "We try to educate as well as develop a better potential employee by talking about what we do. We thought, 'Let's start in the communities where we live and where we work.' "

The company is one of California's largest employers, and it provides internships to about 500 high school and college students each year. Laymon says Chevron has donated more than $10 million to support STEM initiatives in California over the past two years. One of the major beneficiaries are schools like Richmond High that use the Project Lead the Way curriculum, which is formed around hands-on, project-based engineering courses.

In Richmond and El Segundo, where two of Chevron's largest refineries are located, Laymon says the company encourages its technicians to visit schools so that students can put a human face to an occupation.

Aurelio Garcia, lead of Richmond's engineering academy, says visits from engineers have improved student engagement at the school.

"Students definitely like seeing what an engineer looks like," he says. "They have to see what [engineers] do, so they can get an idea of how they might turn out."

Jose Cerda, a junior at the school, says he wasn't sure what he wanted to do until the class took a trip to the University of California, Santa Cruz's engineering school. While there, he saw a student-designed, mail-delivering robot.

"That made me open my eyes," he says. "I wondered 'How is that possible?' They had so many ideas that I never thought about, it was amazing."

He says the trip "changed how he looked at engineering," and that he hopes to go to the school when he graduates.

Laymon says Chevron invites classes to take field trips to its refineries and that talented students, such as Alvarez, may get to shadow a worker as they go through their day.

Even if all the students don't go into engineering or work at Chevron, he says everyone could use the education.

"People assume that the products we produce are ubiquitous, but you turn on the light switch and don't connect how the electricity got there: the complexity, hazards, and expense associated with producing oil," he says. "We decided, 'Let's not assume people know how these things work. Let's get into these schools, and, while we're educating, see if we can find some future employees.'"

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