New UTEP Degree Shifts Engineering Paradigm

Last Updated on May 02, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published May 02, 2017

By Lauren Macias-Cervantes

UTEP Communications

Ask any graduating student how they feel about their big day, and many will say they are excited and proud. But ask students in the first graduating class of UTEP’s Engineering Leadership bachelor’s program, and they will likely say they are confident about their future and passionate about proving the value of their degree.

Roger Gonzalez, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Engineering Education and Leadership stands next to the inaugural E-Lead class outside of the College of Engineering. Each student is holding an icon that relates to the multifaceted degree. Photo: Laura Trejo/UTEP Communications

“It is exciting,” said Dante Chaparro Vega. “No one really knows what our degree entails, and it is up to us to demonstrate our abilities and skills.”

Chaparro Vega is one of 11 Engineering Leadership, or E-Lead, trailblazers. The group is not only the first to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Leadership at UTEP, but the first in the nation to graduate with the unique degree.

“I’m proud that UTEP had the courage to be the first in the country to do this,” said Roger Gonzalez, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Engineering Education and Leadership. “We’re trying to make a difference in engineering nationally. We’re trying to be a model program not just for how we can attract local students, but what we can do on a larger national platform.”

E-Lead is much more than a cluster of classes that form a degree plan.

“It’s a multidisciplinary engineering degree that really focuses on building leadership capacity in students, business acumen and innovation/entrepreneurship capacity,” Gonzalez explained.

UTEP collaborated with Olin College and the United States Military Academy, among other prominent educational institutions, to design a curriculum for E-Lead that transforms the classroom experience. Lessons include technical problems with added elements like people and finances, and nontraditional lecture setups. Classes are held in a studio-based, experiential environment where students can build, test and design. 

“Historically, engineers have been trained and educated to solve technical problems,” Gonzalez said. “We think that’s great, that’s necessary, but we are also trying to complement that with engineers who are comfortable dealing with the business aspect of things, to be able to work in a larger team to accelerate progress to solve complex issues outside of just the technical idiosyncrasies.”

Gonzalez joined UTEP in 2012 and nurtured the innovative bachelor’s degree from concept to reality. He said the diversity of the degree is a main attraction for students, especially women.

“Schools have always been about evaluating results, but E-Lead also focuses on the individual and on the process,” explained Isaiah Webb, who will be among the first E-Lead graduates. “E-Lead is established on developing students in their character, capacity and competence rather than only testing them to see if they learned the information taught in the course.

“The most challenging aspect has been challenging and changing my previous expectations and thinking processes,” he added. “I was so used to solving problems from a textbook where I knew I could find the answer and the solution if I needed it because it had already been solved. E-Lead, however, takes an entirely different approach. Sometimes we are asked to design and build a product that does X. Other times we have to choose a user group, learn about a common need they have, and solve that need.” 

Antonio Casas joined the E-Lead program because he was tired of the technical classes and wanted to go beyond engineering.

“I wanted to mix in what I had learned in my engineering classes with real-world applications,” he said.

The decision to pursue the new degree came easy for America Fernandez.

“I decided to major in engineering because I wanted to change the world by making an impact on it,” she said. “Engineering Leadership seemed like the best option since it offered a diverse learning opportunity and promised to transform you into something ‘more than an engineer.’”

Starting a new program is not easy, especially when it breaks the mold of a traditional engineering degree. While it has been challenging for many students, it also has been rewarding and a source of personal and professional growth for them.

“The most challenging part was getting through the uncertainty of joining a new degree program and deciding to take the risk of not choosing an established degree,” said Erwin Delgado. “The whole process was also rewarding. I enjoyed seeing how the program was changing and growing as we went through our college career. It was extremely satisfying seeing how our experience and input shaped what the degree would look like for future students.” 

The degree also awakened passion for some students like Miguel Fraga.

“The biggest challenge to me throughout these four years has been discovering what I am really passionate about,” Fraga said. “It was sometimes frustrating to me not knowing what I wanted to do with my engineering degree. There were many options available to me, but thanks to E-Lead, its advisers, and the incredible community, I discovered that I wanted to focus on environmental engineering.”

E-Lead student Alberto Gonzalez also wants to help the environment. He hopes to make El Paso one of the most environmentally friendly regions by 2025 and looks forward to developing his company, El Paso Rubber Recycling, as a recycling innovation center.

“Staying in school and building a startup has been the biggest challenge,” the entrepreneur said. “After a year of operation, I look forward to the impact our business can make in rubber recycling.” 

That startup is the first from the cohort of 11 students, but there are other students who wish to start their own company or companies.

“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish and what they [the students] have been able to accomplish,” Gonzalez said. “I think any time you do something and you finish the first round, you look back and you ask, ‘What can I do better?’” he said.

Gonzalez is already looking at the lessons learned, including the local and national promotion of the degree and helping students learn to sell themselves.

“When you graduate in mechanical or electrical engineering, that’s all you really have to say,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t have to explain what those engineering disciplines are about.”

The jobs the E-Lead graduates land also will better illustrate what can be done with the degree.

“I feel nervous and excited at the same time,” Fernandez said. “There are a lot of people looking at us and expecting great things from us, and I would hate to disappoint anyone. But I know that the journey will pay off, and our future is very bright.”

Employers including Halliburton, Sherwin Williams, Lockheed Martin and El Paso Water Utilities have offered full-time positions and are taking a close look at some E-lead graduates, but they aren’t the only ones.

MIT, which has an E-Lead extracurricular program, and Rice, which has an E-Lead certificate, have both been on campus to observe the degree and are closely watching the outcome. In fact, UTEP will host the directors of most of the nation’s other Engineering Leadership programs in the fall. 

Of the 11 in the cohort, eight will walk the stage at the evening Commencement ceremony on May 13. Three students have already started their graduate studies as part of UTEP’s joint B.S.-MBA degree program.

For more on the E-Lead program, visit the website.