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Educate Texas presents UTEP with a $725,000 grant as part of its Texas Regional Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Degree Accelerator initiative. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

UTEP Launches Regional STEM Degree Accelerator

The University of Texas at El Paso has received a $725,000 grant from Educate Texas as part of its Texas Regional Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Degree Accelerator initiative.

The pioneering grant program is an opportunity to sync faculty and employers toward the goal of empowering students with the knowledge and skills that equal strong careers. UTEP will spearhead the engineering portion of the initiative, specifically by increasing female enrollment and graduation in engineering and training more engineering faculty of any gender.

“UTEP is pleased to receive support from the Texas Regional STEM Degree Accelerator,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “With this investment in our students, Educate Texas and their generous partners have demonstrated a strong commitment to the Paso del Norte region. This grant empowers UTEP and other members of this region’s consortium to expand our efforts to prepare a young, dynamic and diverse workforce in STEM fields.”

UTEP was one of five institutions of higher education selected to receive one of these prestigious grants ranging from $550,000 to $800,000 over three years. Its team is made up of College of Engineering Associate Dean Patricia Nava, Ph.D., who is the project’s principal investigator; Interim Dean of the College of Engineering Carlos Ferregut, Ph.D.; Professor of Engineering Education and Leadership Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Stella Quiñones, Ph.D.; Professor of Psychology Michael Zarate, Ph.D.; and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Benjamin Flores, Ph.D.

Nava is hopeful that this program will contribute to a new national model.

“It really does recognize the whole picture and how everything is interdependent,” she said.

Over the next decade, Texas is projected to have the second highest percentage – approximately 9 percent – of the nation’s future STEM job opportunities. Strategically increasing the number of underrepresented students earning STEM degrees throughout the state by partnering with Hispanic-serving institutions like UTEP brings necessary diversity to the workforce that will fulfill those employment needs.

In order to increase the number of students who graduate from college with STEM credentials, regional and local collaborations are critical.

“The Texas Regional STEM Degree Accelerator motivates our education and workforce partners to collaborate at a regional level to develop and refine STEM pathways,” said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas. “These pathways will result in an increased number of students across the state earning STEM degrees that meet regionally identified workforce needs.”

Each grantee has convened a regional consortium of two-year college, K-12 and workforce partners. Within UTEP’s partnership, four major approaches will be undertaken. New curriculum will build interest and confidence in students to keep them committed to engineering. An advising system and work experiences with industry partners will instill students with a sense of identity as an engineer.

Strategic outreach to K-12 schools and the parents of students enrolled there will cultivate curiosity about STEM well before college. Finally, students will have multiple, clear pathways to earn degrees, including reverse transfer and co-enrollment at both El Paso Community College and UTEP.

Consortium members have examined regional workforce data, identified the STEM pathways in which they plan to work, and begun engaging faculty and workforce to redesign gateway courses in STEM majors and ensure alignment with workforce needs. Professional development also will be provided to faculty to improve teaching and learning in STEM fields.

UTEP’s community collaborators include Borderplex Alliance, the Council on Regional Economic Expansion & Educational Development (CREEED), El Paso Community College (EPCC), Region 19 Education Service Center and Workforce Solutions Borderplex.

In expressing his organization’s commitment, CREEED Board Chairman Richard Castro said, “We believe that our investments should prepare our region’s students to thrive in college and be competitive once they join the workforce, especially within sectors such as STEM which show promising job growth and opportunities for advancement.” He added that the initiative will make local institutions of higher learning much more attractive and competitive.

The El Paso regional effort aims to train 60 college faculty and four high school teachers; serve more than 1,400 college students and 400 high school students; and produce 200 associate and 1,100 Bachelor of Science in engineering degree holders.

According to Nava, faculty training is essential to the success of this initiative. She referred to a stream of highly regarded studies indicating the need for addressing the way faculty run a classroom by the Department of Labor, National Academy of Engineering, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, Frontiers in Education and the American Educational Research Journal.

“The first part of the training is diversity awareness,” Nava said. “The second part is [creating] active learning and an engaging environment in the classroom because this literature shows that women like to see what the end result is going to be and to have some sort of justification for what they’re doing. So part of the training is going to be to adopt that mindset and to communicate it to the students where we’re harnessing math and science for the benefit of mankind. The whole idea is to create activities, projects, teaching styles that are in fact more engaging and less of the lecture and one way of communication.”

Olin College, renowned for new approaches to engineering education, will conduct workshops for faculty as part of these training efforts.

The program kicks off on campus with the first trainings in June 2016.

STEM Accelerator is developed in alignment with priorities for education and workforce outlined by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Workforce Commission. It is funded through the generosity of The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Greater Texas Foundation, CREEED, JP Morgan Chase, and The W.W. Caruth, Jr. Foundation.

The Educate Texas public-private partnership includes major corporations like IBM along with government representation from the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Workforce Commission, the Office of the Governor and the Texas legislature.

Nonprofit entities in the partnership include the Communities Foundation of Texas, Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Greater Texas Foundation, The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Houston Endowment, The Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, TG Texas Guaranteed and the Texas Instruments Foundation.

Author:  Lisa Y. Garibay – UTEP Communications

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