Leestown Middle School student Sandra Juarez, 13, said just months ago that she didn't know much about tablets and computers.
Now, Sandra said, "I really have a big passion for technology. ... I want to be an engineer."
Sandra, an eighth-grader, acquired a new set of skills through LSTEAM, a new program launched at her middle school.
The acronym is based on the program's focus on language, science, technology, engineering, arts and math, was started by Bryan Station High School teacher Levi Evans. Evans got a helping hand from the United Way of the Bluegrass, and Xerox Corp. donated $200,000.
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The idea for the program was inspired by Bryan Station, where some science, engineering, aviation and advanced arts courses are taught by native Spanish speakers. Evans said he saw a need to provide Latino students, including those whose first language is Spanish, with a rigorous dual-language STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and arts curriculum.
"I started contacting people about this idea, and the United Way got involved," Evans said.
About the same time, United Way was contacted by Xerox officials who wanted to facilitate more STEM opportunities in Lexington, said Gary Cremeans, volunteer engagement manager for United Way. With that, they started working together with Evans.
"We started to collaborate, asked for some help from other schools, and the program was born," Evans said.
Connie Harvey, chief operating officer for Commercial Healthcare at Xerox, said the program was "an example of a public-private, and philanthropic, partnership that could change society, certainly our community and definitely the opportunities these students will have."
The initial focus was centered on high school students, those working on the program realized that students needed to concentrate on LSTEAM courses at a younger age.
With the money from Xerox, new LSTEAM classes have begun at Leestown Middle School, which had a 39 percent Latino student population in 2013 and already had a pre-engineering program.
On Wednesday, a seventh-grade class tackled math equations. Just down the hall, a group of eighth graders worked with tablets and a 3D printer.
Christian Garcia, 12, a seventh-grader in the program, said he thought it would help him become an architect, but he also expected to learn a lot about engineering.
"It is putting in our students' head that there is a world after high school, so they can go to college and they can think of engineering careers," said Oscar Ortiz Aguilar, an LSTEAM teacher.
Stephen Holthaus, a technology resource teacher who runs Leestown's pre-engineering program, said they are primarily "beefing them up mostly in mathematics, because that's the key to engineering and science."
About 50 students were selected for the program. They were chosen based on test scores and whether they had an interest in the fields covered by the program, Leestown associate principal Joe Gibson said.
After middle school, many of the Leestown students will go to specialized high school programs where they will take high-level math, science, technology and language courses. They will also take regular field trips to universities and industries to gain more exposure to STEM-related education and careers, Evans said.
Evans is also working with several organizations at the University of Kentucky — including the College of Engineering, Engineers without Borders and the College of Education — to create a pipeline of Latino students who are prepared to enroll and succeed in STEM majors at UK. Evans said that Bluegrass Community and Technical College's Latino Outreach program has helped.
And Harold Gonzalez of Lexmark, a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, has become an adviser for Bryan Station students, who started a chapter last year, Evans said.
"This population of students is hard-working, bright and brings life experiences and language skills that would be an asset to any university campus or workplace," Evans said.
But he said some of them face economic and family challenges. "It will take some very intentional support for them to overcome these obstacles."
Evans wants to bring the program to more Fayette County middle schools.
"And who knows, these students may eventually come to work for Xerox and help us create the next big thing," Harvey said.