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Bridging the Skills Gap: STEM and Diversity Advocate Carolina Diaz
Carolina Diaz, a project engineer at Shell, was recently recognized with a Luminary Award at the Great Minds in STEM’s 2021 Conference and Hispanic Engineering National Achievement Awards event for her contributions to bringing STEM education to underserved students.
The Luminary Award honors professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who initiate, collaborate, and lead key programs and research within their companies, making “significant contributions to the Hispanic technical community as leaders and role models,” according to the Great Minds in STEM website.
Diaz received the award for her contributions to the Hispanic technical community, advancing STEM education and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion goals, and retaining Hispanic talent to the energy industry.
Now a lead engineer for the planning and execution of the marine installation contract for Shell’s Vito floating production platform, Diaz emigrated to the United States with her family when she was 11 years old.
She recently spoke with THEjournal.com about her passion for inspiring STEM interest among students as well as her personal commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM fields. She is an active member in Shell’s Employee Resource Groups, serving as the 2020 Vice President of Culture for WAVE (Women Adding Value Everywhere), the company’s professional network for women, and more recently as the 2021 Chapter President for the Shell Hispanic Employees Network at the Woodcreek campus.
What drives your commitment to your volunteerism to promote STEM education?
Carolina Diaz: My parents are educators, so when I was growing up, even when our financial means were limited, there were three things we never lacked: faith, education, and the gift of giving. They taught me early on through their example that even if you don’t have much you can always give your time and energy, and this is something I have come to care deeply about.
What was your journey to discovering career options in STEM?
Diaz: When I was younger, I loved solving problems; one of my hobbies was doing puzzles, and my parents definitely fostered that curiosity within me.
I wish I would have discovered STEM career options earlier, but that a-ha moment came through role models and their career paths. My brother and my father were in computer science, and my sister studied chemical engineering. I went to an engineering fair (during high school), and I saw there were many different fields of engineering. I chose petroleum engineering, and I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, it just interested me the most. Engineering was a great fit for me also because I excelled in math and science.
What kind of efforts are you involved in to foster interest in STEM in K–12 students?
Diaz: I volunteer on the Science Corps program where I and my peers go to STEM classes and activities and share how each STEM activity they’re doing applies in different career paths. That is very rewarding.
Another program is Great Minds in STEM, which this year named me a Luminary honoree. The Luminary award showcases my story and how I got to where I am now, both through professional accomplishments in STEM and leadership accomplishments in the diversity and inclusion space. It's very important that students can see success examples and they can dream of one day being there.
Which of these have you been involved with the longest, and can you describe some of the impacts of these efforts?
Diaz: While in college, I got involved in mentoring kids to foster interest in STEM fields. Since then, any volunteer opportunity that comes up, if I’m available, I raise my hand. That includes the Mayor's Back 2 School Fest Shell sponsors in Houston – I try to go every year because it’s just so rewarding.
When I volunteer in the various programs, the biggest reward is inspiring the students — and sometimes it’s hard to know if what you say to those students hits home, or how precisely it makes an impact. I do believe it does. I think over time, we’re just planting seeds, and they will reap eventually. These kids are amazing and just so talented.
Even if it is just being a role model and answering their questions or just handing them the backpack and school supplies … all these things add up, and they remember it.
What was the biggest hurdle for you as a student when considering your future, and specifically when you began considering a career in STEM?
Diaz: My family’s financial limitations was definitely one of the challenges to pursuing a career in STEM. I saw that my siblings had to work extra jobs and earn scholarships to help pay for college, so I knew that I’d need to do that.
I knew getting good grades was critical for me to be competitive and get into a good program and also to get the much-needed financial support and scholarships. I did have family support as far as them even understanding what it meant to be competitive to get into an engineering school.
And I did some things my peers weren’t doing at the time. Such as, I enrolled in college classes while I was in high school, which was more difficult, but it paid off in the end.
What has been the most rewarding project or moment during your advocacy work?
Diaz: That’s so difficult because it’s a passion of mine, I love all the volunteer work I do. The most rewarding part is seeing firsthand the talent and potential of kids these days. It’s so important to see that and share that. when you hear the questions they ask, how curious they are. It’s vital to foster that and help them see the big picture and the opportunities the future holds, showcasing what they’re really capable of.
How has the team at Shell encouraged your advocacy work in ways that have been meaningful either to you or to the students you’ve helped?
Diaz: In my opinion, to purse advocacy work and even my current role in diversity and inclusion efforts, it requires passion and also support from your employer. I have received great support from Shell; being involved in advocacy work and volunteer programs makes me a better leader and a better professional.
It’s crucial to have that support from the company and even in my department from my supervisor to do this work, and they help connect me to more opportunities for advocacy as well.
(Another important thing) is that when applicants are looking for jobs, it is noticeable when the companies have a diverse representation — it's important for a company to look like what they are looking for – an applicant does look through the company’s representation and what the company stands for as a whole, when it comes to inclusion and underrepresented communities. Shell does a really great job with that, with showing their diversity and practicing inclusion in their recruiting.
What exactly is your job at Shell like? When you tell young students about your role at Shell, how do you describe it?
Diaz: So I work in the project and technology organization and support the Vito deep water project. It's kind of like building a house: you first have to think of where you will build it, then define how many rooms; then you create a layout and then the house gets built. My role and my team’s role is really similar, we look at where to put different pieces of equipment in the ocean and what the equipment will be used for, and then we create a layout or a footprint of what it will all look like when it’s built and connected.
I get to see it being fabricated and built and then see it installed; I go with the installation boats or vessels and see the equipment being installed. There's a lot of technology involved, like a little robot that’s your eyes underwater. I’ve been very grateful to be able to see the full cycle of each project.
What advice do you have for teachers or employers on how to better foster STEM interest in today's youth?
Diaz: The biggest piece is investing in talent at all different stages, grades 8-12 especially, and supporting them through college so once they do have their degree they find the right role. Also important is fostering their growth once they have graduated and gotten career jobs. It takes effort every day.
One way to introduce STEM in the classroom is collaborating with local companies in STEM fields to bring in ambassadors to schools to share about their story and job; those ambassadors inspire those kids. Supporting the teachers is also very critical, providing teachers with the tools and knowledge they need to encourage kids’ interest in STEM, such as the NEED program Shell partners with to provide classroom curriculum and professional development for teachers.
Education is critical, and STEM education is a skill that has to be developed over time.
Kristal Kuykendall is editor, 1105 Media Education Group. She can
be reached at [email protected].