Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked about the importance of closing the diversity gap in technology careers by closing the technology gap in South Texas on Tuesday, as part of the annual Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology (HESTEC) week for area middle and high school students.

The outgoing Secretary of Education spoke as part of a panel discussing the importance of getting young Latinos to think about technology not just as products, but as the result of imagination and expertise -- something that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education can prepare them for.

But Duncan emphasized that in order for students to get excited about STEM fields and a possible career in technology, the education system needs to change make sure all students get exposed to those cutting-edge tools.

"So much of what we have to do right here in this community, South Texas, and around the country is just to provide exposure," said Duncan, as local paper The Monitor reported. "It's hard to imagine doing something that you have no idea about."

Until recently, the federal government didn't have a plan to conquer the growing digital divide in rural and poor community schools. But with President Obama and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler's plan to modernize and boost funding for E-Rate -- a program from the 90s that originally focused on bringing dial-up Internet to schools -- Duncan said that 99 percent of schools could eventually have access to broadband, as well as more access to Internet connected devices.

Duncan stressed the importance of technology in the classroom not only for exposure, but as an economical way to keep up with the rapid pace of change. 

"When we buy textbooks, most of those textbooks become obsolete the minute they show up in the classroom," said Duncan. "Without a huge influx of money, we have to stop doing some things. As a nation, every year we spend $70 to $90 billion on textbooks, and I much prefer to see districts starting to put that money into devices."

On the longer view, Duncan said universal access to these devices would revolutionize education. "The goal is to be able to have all of you students being able to learn everything you want, anywhere," he said. "The idea of just sitting in class and the only chance to learn is six hours a day, five days a week, nine months out of the year, simply doesn't make sense anymore."

Increasing the opportunities for Latinos and other minorities to begin STEM careers, which would help solve Silicon Valley's now-infamous lack of workforce diversity -- and Duncan stressed it needed to happen in any case -- because the U.S. currently lacks a large enough pool of qualified STEM workers that the technology industry needs.

"I can't tell you how many CEOs, how many company leaders I've met with, and President Obama has met with that say, 'We want to grow, we want to keep good jobs in our community, but we can't find the workforce,'" said Duncan.

"We have to build a pipeline," he added. "We have to provide exposure, and if you do, that there are great jobs out there, desperately trying to hire and wanting to hire folks in the United States."

Now in its 14th year, the University of Texas Rio Grand Valley's HESTEC conference continues all week with events, speakers, and panels of industry leaders, politicians, and educators discussing how to encourage and improve STEM education for Latino students.