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Hispanic Heritage in STEM*

Jaime Escalante, Ellen Ochoa, John Olivas and France Cordova

Jaime Escalante, Ellen Ochoa, John Olivas and France Cordova. Images courtesy of U.S. Postal Service, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

* STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)

We focus on the following four people due to their accomplishments in STEM and their connections to Los Angeles County.

Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante With Former Students at JPL

Jaime Escalante (center) in 2006 posing with Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineers Thomas Valdez (L) and Sergio Valdez (R) (not related) who were Escalante's students at Garfield High School. Image credit to Thomas Valdez, courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Jaime Escalante was an immigrant from Bolivia (born in La Paz in 1930) and high school math teacher who challenged and inspired "unteachable" Latino students in mathematics at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. His story was retold in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver in which actor Edward James Olmos portrayed Escalante.

Escalante emigrated to the U.S. from Bolivia in 1963, but, although he had been an experienced mathematics and physics teacher in Bolivia, he had work as a dishwasher and electronics tech for a decade while he learned English and worked on a second college degree in order to qualify to teach in the U.S. In 1974, after earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from California State University, Los Angeles, he obtained a job to teach mathematics at Garfield High School. He was immediately appalled by the low expectations set for the school’s mostly Latino students. Students there had access to learn only basic mathematics, with no classes in algebra or calculus offered.

With support from a new principal, Henry Gradillas, Escalante partnered with fellow teacher Ben Jiménez to raise and improve the level of math education at Garfield. After first introducing algebra classes, Escalante added his first calculus class at the school in 1978.

In 1982, challenged by Escalante, 18 Garfield High School students took and passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. The Educational Testing Service, however, citing suspicions of cheating, invalidated the scores of 14 of the students and required that they retake the exam. 12 of the 14 retook the exam and, again yet again getting passing scores, proved that their first exam results were legitimate.

Escalante’s efforts led to a dramatic increase in the number of Garfield students entering the University of Southern California.

Jaime Escalante Receives Presidential Medal of Excellence in Education from President Ronald Reagan, 1988

Jaime Escalante teaching a class at Garfield High School, 1983. Image from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive at UCLA Library.

By 1991, however, educational politics drove Escalante and Jimenez out of Los Angeles. Escalante ended up teaching at Hiram W. Johnson High School in Sacramento until his retirement in 1998.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan presented Escalante with the Presidential Medal of Excellence. In 1993, asteroid 5095, discover a decade earlier by Edward Bowell at the Anderson Mesa unit of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, was named Asteroid 5095 Escalante in honor of Escalante. In 1999, Escalante was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

Escalante died in 2010 from cancer. He is buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. In 2016, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor, citing Escalante as "the East Los Angeles teacher whose inspirational methods led supposedly 'unteachable' high school students to master calculus."

France A. Córdova

France Córdova

France Córdova. Image courtesy of the National Science Foundation.

France Córdova is an American of Mexican descent who is an astrophysicist and administrator. She was the youngest person and first woman to serve as Chief Scientist of NASA. In 2019, she currently serves as Director of the National Science Foundation.

Córdova was born in Paris, France, in 1947 due her Mexican American father (who was also a West Point graduate) working in Europe for the international humanitarian organization CARE. In 1953, the family moved to West Covina, where Córdova’s father founded a marble-installation company. In 1965, Córdova graduated from Bishop Amat High School in La Puente and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English in 1969 at Stanford University. She first looked at a career in writing and briefly worked as a writer for the Los Angeles Times. She was, however, inspired by the Apollo missions to the moon and returned to school to earn a PhD in Physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1979.

In 1984, Córdova was listed as “One of America's 100 Brightest Scientists under 40” by Science Digest. In 1993, she won appointment as Chief Scientist for NASA – the youngest person and first woman in the job.

France Córdova Sworn in as Director of the National Science Foundation, 2014

France Córdova sworn in as Director of the National Science Foundation, 2014. Image courtesy of National Science Foundation.

After NASA, Córdova served in key college administrative posts at the University of California, including being appointed Chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, in 2002. She was selected to become president of Purdue University in 2007 and, in 2012, Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institute. In 2014, President Barrack Obama appointed Córdova to be Director of the National Science Foundation.

Ellen O. Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa, NASA

Ellen Ochoa portrait as Director of the NASA Johnson Space Center. Image courtesy of NASA.

Ellen Ochoa is an American of Mexican descent who was an engineer, astronaut and director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She was the first Hispanic woman and first U.S.-born person of Mexican descent in space.*

Ochoa was born in Los Angeles in 1958, but, shortly thereafter, her family moved to the San Diego area where she grew up. Although graduating with honors from high school and offered an opportunity to study at Stanford, she remained close to home and graduated from San Diego State University in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. Ultimately, however, she was able to study at Stanford, earning from there a master’s degree and, in 1985, a doctorate degree in electrical engineering.

Ochoa applied three times to the NASA astronaut candidate program before being accepted in 1990. In 1991, she became the first Hispanic female astronaut.

In 1993, Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman and first U.S.-born person of Mexican descent in space* aboard a 9-day mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery. By 2002, she had flown on four space shuttle missions, logging more than 950 hours in space. Besides the Discovery mission, she flew a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1994, again aboard Discovery in 1999 and again aboard Atlantis in 2002.

Ellen Ochoa Aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2002

Ellen Ochoa aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2002. Image courtesy of NASA.

In 2013, Ochoa became the first Hispanic and second woman director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Several schools are named in honor of Ochoa, including three in Los Angeles County: Ellen Ochoa Elementary School in Cudahy, Ánimo Ellen Ochoa Charter Middle School in East Los Angeles and Ellen Ochoa Prep Academy in Pico Rivera.

In 2017, Ochoa was inducted in the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame.

John D. “Danny” Olivas

John Olivas Aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2007

John Olivas aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, 2007. Image courtesy of NASA.

John Olivas is an American of Mexican descent who was an engineer and NASA astronaut and the first U.S.-born man of Mexican descent to travel into space.*

Olivas was born in North Hollywood in 1966, when his father worked in Los Angeles at a machine shop making parts for NASA rockets. The family, however, later moved back to Texas, where the parents were from and where Olivas ended up growing up. Olivas describes a family visit to NASA’s Space Center in Houston and, viewing the rockets on display, his father’s descriptions of his own machine-shop contributions to space flight. This helped inspire in Olivas his interest in space travel.

In 1998, two years after earning a PhD in mechanical engineering at Rice University, Olivas was accepted into the NASA astronaut candidate program. In 2007, Olivas first flew into space on a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, becoming the first U.S.-born man of Mexican descent in space (Ellen Ochoa was the first U.S.-born person of Mexican descent in space). Two years later, in 2009, Olivas again travelled into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (along with fellow Hispanic crewmember José M. Hernández). On both missions, Olivas performed EVAs (extravehicular activity or “space walks”) totaling 34 hours and 28 minutes. Olivas logged more than 650 hours in space on his two shuttle missions.

John Olivas in EVA, 2009

John Olivas engaged in an EVA (extravehicular activity) during his mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Image courtesy of NASA.

After retiring from NASA, Olivas moved his family from Texas to Manhattan Beach, California, where he founded his company, Olivas and Associates, that “investigates, analyzes and mitigates mission-critical engineering issues.”

In 2013, Olivas released the children’s book “Endeavour’s Long Journey: Celebrating 19 Years of Space Exploration” and in 2016, the Spanish language edition “La larga travesía de Endeavour: Celebrando 19 Años De Exploración Espacial.”

** The first person of Mexican heritage in space was Mexican citizen and scientist Rodolfo Neri Vela, who was on a NASA mission aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1985.

L.A. Video

L.A. Videos

L.A. Video: Hispanic Heritage Profile at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Luis Dominguez.

NASA Hispanic Heritage Profile at JPL