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Casey Christie / The Californian

Golden Valley High School physics students Eduardo Strata, left, and Rudy Ramirez, right, operate a robot at the Edwards Air Force Base exhibit Friday at Cal State Bakersfield during its annual Engineering Day on campus.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

High school students check out the exhibitors at CSUB near the Student Union Building during Friday's annual Engineering Day at the university.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

High school students get a taste of college life during Friday's Engineering Day on the CSUB campus. It's a program to encourage students to study and learn science, technology, engineering and math for future use in their pending careers.

Shafter High School sophomore Giovany Ramos used a remote-controlled robot claw to relocate a red magic marker from one concrete sidewalk panel to another, then raised his arms in triumph as a small crowd of onlookers cheered.

"Nope, nope, nope, it had to go in the seam between the two. Let somebody else try," said killjoy Mickey Bowen, who was manning the Edwards Air Force Base booth at Engineers Day, co-sponsored by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Kern County Superintendent of Schools and Cal State Bakersfield.

The 13th annual event drew about 500 high school students from 22 schools to the campus of CSUB Friday, one of a host of local programs designed to expose Kern County students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM.

Historically, Kern's schools have been unable to satisfy the local economy's voracious appetite for geologists, engineers and others with the expertise needed to fill jobs in the region's critical energy and aerospace industries.

About 17 percent of Kern County adults hold a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 38 percent of adults statewide and 37 percent nationally.

That forces some of the area's biggest employers to recruit workers from across the country, or even internationally.

But there's been a concerted effort to cultivate homegrown talent over the last decade, giving rise to all sorts of public-private partnerships aimed at boosting STEM instruction in schools and wooing young people into STEM careers.

It's still early in the effort, but there are many indicators that it's paying off.

About 44 percent of Kern students scored proficient in math in state testing last year, up from 34 percent five years ago.

Statewide, 51 percent of students were proficient in math last year.

During the same period, Kern students who scored proficient in science rose from 25 percent to 41 percent, compared with 46 percent of California students last year.

It's no accident, said Vickie Spanos, director of instruction for the Kern High School District.

"We're working really hard to make sure that our students are college-ready," she said. "There's collaboration between schools, private industry, and colleges and universities to make sure our kids are not only prepared, but aware of the opportunities."

'It's working'

STEM clubs and classes have been sprouting on campuses as early as elementary school at a dizzying pace, many of them with support from local companies that donate money and employees who act as mentors.

Chevron, for instance, is a major funder of Project Lead the Way, an educational program focusing on STEM fields that is hosted at five Kern High School District campuses, including Centennial.

It was 17-year-old Emily Schoenborn's participation in Centennial's program that convinced her to aspire to a career in environmental engineering.

"The courses gave me an idea what it's going to be like, and gave me different options," she said. "I wouldn't have known about it otherwise."

Lani Cotton, site manager of an after-school program at Actis Junior High, recently raised money to purchase telescopes and science kits for children in her program.

"It's important to get them exposed to it young, because right now it's hands-on and fun, so if we can get them interested in it now, they'll already have that desire and that foundation when they get older and it gets harder," she said.

Many of these programs have been around long enough now that they're starting to have a ripple effect.

Huberto Rocha, a 16-year-old junior at Ridgeview High School, said he's shooting for a mechanical engineering career because a lot of his friends are getting into the field, and he's seen the benefits of it.

"It sounds like a great option for me," he said.

That's music to the ears of people such as Max Solanki, an engineer at Occidental of Elk Hills and member of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, which distributes $50,000 a year in scholarships to Kern County students pursuing engineering or science majors in college.

"I definitely think these efforts are worthwhile," he said. "Our industry has hired kids we gave scholarships to after graduation. It's working."

Last week's Engineering Day at CSUB featured a who's who of the local energy sector, with booths from Haliburton, Chevron, Aera and many others all touting the advantages of careers in STEM.

"Any kind of engineering job you can think of, the federal government has it," said the Air Force base's Bowen in between waving students over to his robot challenge.

Harold Brown of the American Society of Safety Engineers waved at passersby a piece of paper that was covered on both sides with single-spaced job listings in the field.

"This is to show that the jobs are there," he said.

And those jobs aren't just for men anymore. The Alliance of Women in Energy Mentoring Initiative, which operates at several schools across the county, specifically targets girls to get the word out that STEM is gender-neutral.

There's a lot of work to do in that arena, said CSUB sophomore Gifty Sackey, who plans to become an electrical engineer.

"You really see the male domination in the field in the upper division classes," she said. "In the lower classes, there's a more even distribution of male and female."

'Crossing our fingers'

As more and more young people get exposure to STEM, however, interest in STEM careers is expanding even into populations that historically are underrepresented in the field.

In 2010, three-quarters of the student population at CSUB was composed of first-generation college students, and 80 percent of the university's students were on some form of financial aid.

Yet enrollment in CSUB's School of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering has increased by 56 percent to about 1,400 students over the last five years, said Associate Dean Kamel Haddad.

"We have a lot of people working together to promote STEM and deliver programs that are relevant to our rapidly advancing technological world," he said.

The private sector has contributed enthusiastically to that cause because it understands that investing in the local workforce is more cost-effective than recruiting from outside the area, which leads to higher turnover.

The goal, of course, is for young students who fall in love with STEM to stay in the area after they grow up, join the local workforce and stay in a community where they have roots.

"We're crossing our fingers," said Adam Alvidrez, who works in policy, government and public affairs at Chevron. "We certainly see value in creating a local pipeline, and we definitely see progress in that. We'd like to think we've had a little something to do with it."