UTEP CAHSI Scholars Help Students and Community Amidst COVID-19 Health Crisis
Darlene Barajas and Anahy Diaz | September 17, 2020
at the Great Minds in STEM Conference in October 2019,
after being honored as a CAHSI Scholar.
Students from the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI) Scholars program at The University of Texas at El Paso have been actively contributing to UTEP and the El Paso community amidst the COVID-19 health crises.
A CAHSI scholar advocates for continuous professional and academic development, and community engagement, centered on promotion of diversity and inclusiveness. The scholar also focuses on social impact that bridges societal needs or problems with tech-based or tech-inspired solutions.
Bianca S. Alvarez is a graduate research assistant in UTEP’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, a UTEP 2019-20 CAHSI scholar, and a program leader for the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) AspireIT and Empowering the Borderland programs. The Computer Science graduate student has been compiling lists of opportunities including scholarships and online webinars, which she has shared with Computer Science students at the University. Alvarez has been working with Southwest LatinX, an organization dedicated to the empowerment and advancement of LatinX youth, to transform all K-12 programs to virtual programs. These programs are slated to take place from July through December.
“We have been delivering workshops since 2018, this time we are shifting to a virtual format due to the situation. We are very excited to reach many girls in our community,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez has been working with female college students from other institutions to form Her Tech Hour, a Facebook Community that has a series of educational webinars intended to empower women by providing a guide to navigating through the tech industry and encouraging them to be unapologetically ambitious. The first seminar took place at the beginning of April, with speakers that addressed female empowerment, and personal and professional growth. (Video of the program available at: https://youtu.be/b6uHmXMSuto).
“I believe now is more important than before to encourage students to keep going, right now is a difficult time for everyone,” Alvarez said.
The group has hosted six seminars in total, and continues to host a new one every two weeks on Wednesdays, with topics that range from ‘How to become a Product Manager’ to ‘How to Succeed in a Remote Internship.’
Alex Vargas, doctoral student in computer science, UTEP CAHSI 2019-20 scholar, and member of the iLink Research Lab is working on a Urban Connector, a three-year project focused on understanding the mobility needs of seniors in urban areas, with a focus on El Paso, Texas and developing a smart application (iOS and Android app) that caters to their mobility needs. Vargas’ doctoral dissertation focuses on fostering the development of scientific experiments by scientists.
“As the COVID-19 health crisis started to evolve, we suspended our physical contact with older adults to prevent the spread of the disease. Currently, we’re working on reporting our findings in specific research journals,” Vargas said.
“As a computer science student, I’m focused on understanding scientific data and how it can be used and understood by the general public, i.e. non-scientists.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vargas and his family have been following coronavirus prevention guidelines like staying home, as his sister is a nurse who has a high risk of contracting the virus.
Angel Uriel Ortega, UTEP 2018-19 CAHSI scholar, doctoral student, program developer and graduate advisor for the Coding Interview Club (CIC) at UTEP says the club aims to provide students in computer science and related fields with the opportunity and resources to improve their coding-interview skills. They are currently working with students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT) sharing resources, lessons learned, and ideas on how to improve the program. Today, the club holds interview preparation sessions, as well as workshops on data structures, algorithms, and other topics.
“My goal for this club is to build a case study and tracking program that will help us evaluate how to best prepare our students for coding interviews, build a methodology, and deploy to all CAHSI institutions with the help of the CAHSI Advocates,” Ortega said.
Ortega is currently working with the Google Tech Exchange (TECHX) program, a collaboration between Google, CAHSI, and some Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), to create new pathways and opportunities for undergraduate computer science students. As part of the program, students attend classes at Google for a semester to a year and are exposed to material developed and taught by Hispanic-Serving Institutions, HBCUs, and Google faculty. Students are also able to participate in community building and outreach opportunities as part of the TECHX program.
“For the last two years that CAHSI has been a part of this program, I have been the CAHSI student coordinator for TECHX,” Ortega said. “My role aims to provide students with all necessary resources to succeed in the program. This role has also provided me with the opportunity to become a role model and a mentor to the students. As a student myself, I believe I am more approachable to students and have had the opportunity to help them in managing team-relationships, seeking help and resources from instructors, and navigating through internship/full time application processes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected CIC in many ways, causing them to change their methods to support remote-learning, and moving to a project-based learning approach. They recently launched a mini-hackathon series where students work on individual projects with help and supervision from their officers. This allows students to continue practicing their coding skills and provides them with mentorship and feedback opportunities as well.
For the TECHX program, students have had to learn how to navigate the waters of online learning. Ortega says the pandemic has triggered his curiosity to work on a prototype of a face mask for personal protective equipment (PPE) use. He is working on a new mechanism for filtration for the face mask, with the collaboration of his twin brother, Angel Guillermo Ortega, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at UTEP. Due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic, it is hard to test their prototype, but they believe they have a good new alternative to current face mask options on the market.
To learn more about the CAHSI Scholars program at UTEP visit: https://cahsi.utep.edu/cahsi-scholars/.