Campers and staffers of UTEP's ExciTES Summer Institute recently celebrated the end of their three-week program with an awards assembly at the Engineering Breezeway. The camp involved engineering and computing with an emphasis on aspects of transportation. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

UTEP’s ExciTES Camp touts empathy, transportation

More than 20 middle school students recently experienced real-world engineering and computing with a focus on transportation during a three-week hybrid program at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). One thing they learned was that sometimes empathy is as important as physics to enhance someone’s quality of life.

The students, who came from throughout the region to UTEP, were part of the 2021 National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) funded and governed by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the Federal Highway Association (FHWA). UTEP conducted the activity as part of its ExciTES (Excellence in Technology, Engineering and Science) Summer Institute. It is one of eight similar projects conducted throughout the state on behalf of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Participants celebrated the end of the UTEP program on July 2, 2021, with a hamburger lunch followed by a closing ceremony in the Engineering Breezeway.

The program’s curricula included a ride along in a Sun Metro bus where some students used crutches, wheelchairs and vision-blocking glasses to simulate disabilities that some bus patrons face on a daily basis.

While he did not use an apparatus, Alexander Rodriguez said that he watched others use them and saw how the Sun Metro personnel assisted people with disabilities. He said he would remember that experience when he designs something in the future as a civil or mechanical engineer.

Rodriguez enrolled because of his interest in construction and building things in general. The 11-year-old was a student at the El Paso Leadership Academy in South-Central El Paso. His favorite activity was constructing a Popsicle-stick bridge in part because of the free flow of ideas among the campers.

“It was cool to see how people think differently,” said Rodriguez, whose military family will move to Illinois this summer. “Overall (the camp) was pretty great. I liked learning about what engineers do every day. I also liked exploring the college.”

The empathetic exposure was an important part of the camp, which focused on how engineers create opportunities, influence transportation and impact people’s lives. Along with the Sun Metro experience, the campers also toured TxDOT’s El Paso District Headquarters in Far East El Paso and the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, to broaden their transportation perspective.

Nine of UTEP’s Engineering Ambassadors, undergraduates who represent the College of Engineering’s seven departments, organized the institute. The camp’s first two weeks were virtual and included presentations about the fundamentals of engineering that involved design, circuits, motors, modeling and solar power.

This prepared the participants for their final week at UTEP, where campers visited the college’s Center for Transportation Infrastructure Systems labs, the Foundry in the Department of Metallurgical, Materials and Biomedical Engineering, and labs in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Organizers divided the students into teams for when they tested photovoltaic cells for solar cars and sensors to capture air pollution data.

The Popsicle-stick bridge also was the favorite activity of Bellissa “Bella” Marquez, an East Side resident who will be an eighth-grade student at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a Lower Valley campus in the Ysleta Independent School District. She liked the bridge project because she is interested in how civil engineering affects the world.

“I enjoyed (the camp) very much,” said Marquez, who said she plans to study either aerospace engineering at UCLA or engineering leadership at UTEP. “Engineering is my passion.”

Gabby Gándara, assistant dean for Engineering Student Success, attended the closing ceremony and said one of the program’s secondary goals was to familiarize the campers with the University, and have them work with UTEP students who often live in their communities and attended their schools.

“Some of these students are not familiar with what opportunities exist beyond their neighborhood,” Gándara said. “They might know about UTEP but have never visited. Getting them on campus gets them one step closer to the reality that they will be here and, hopefully, getting an engineering or computing degree.”

The USDOT-FHWA formally established the NSTI as a recognized educational initiative in 1998. LaShaundra Shaw, a TxDOT diversity and inclusion program specialist, said additional highway administration funds allowed TxDOT to expand the NSTI program.

“There are eight NSTI programs being conducted this summer,” Shaw said. “Each program provided unique activities, learning opportunities and field trips based on the career pathways locally available to the students being recruited and served by the host site.”

One of the camp’s team members was El Paso native Nicholas Herrera, a sophomore mechanical engineering major. He said his participation was a way to give back. He attended similar camps at UTEP while a student at Burnham Wood Charter School. Those activities, especially the ones that involved LEGOs, boosted his interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“To be able to teach STEM and share my input with students at that age is very rewarding,” Herrera said. “I hope they get the same from their (camp) experience as I got from mine.”

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Author: Daniel Perez –  UTEP Communications