Symposium Seeks to Inspire Future Engineers

Last Updated on May 03, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published May 03, 2017

By Lauren Macias-Cervantes

UTEP Communications

When you were little, did you ever pretend to be an astronaut or fly a space shuttle? Perhaps you liked to take things apart and put them back together to see how they worked. That’s the curiosity that sparked the interest of many engineers in the industry today.

Regional students in grades K-12 learned more about careers in STEM fields at a free educational session Saturday, April 1 at the Wyndham El Paso Airport. UTEP’s Department of Mechanical Engineering offered the information session for students as part of its annual Southwest Emerging Technology Symposium (SETS). The expert panel included representatives from RAND Corp., NASA Johnson Space Center, NASA Glenn Research Center, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., the U.S. Department of Energy and the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation at UTEP. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre/UTEP Communications

“I used to take my bicycle apart,” said Nick Gonzales, director for the Fleet Ballistic Program at Lockheed Martin. “I think it leads to manifesting your future when you have a sense of where you want to end up as early as you can get there.”

Gonzales was one of several speakers in El Paso in April 2017 for the Southwest Emerging Technology Symposium (SETS) organized by UTEP’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The symposium provided career-building opportunities for students from UTEP and across the country in a professional conference setting by connecting them with researchers, scholars and industry professionals for possible recruitment opportunities. The event included a 90-minute panel session for students in grades K-12 in the community.

In addition to Gonzales, session participants included RAND Corp. Senior Policy Researcher Michael McGee, Ph.D.; NASA Johnson Space Center Chief Technologist for the Propulsion and Power Division John H. Scott; NASA Glenn Research Center Chief of the Chemical and Thermal Propulsion Systems Branch Mark Klem; Acting Crosscutting Technology Manager in the Office of Strategic Planning for the U.S. Department of Energy Robert Romanosky; and Director of the UTEP W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation Ryan Wicker, Ph.D.

“It is of utmost importance to engage students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) early, especially in our community,” said Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., professor and chair of UTEP’s mechanical engineering department and organizer of the symposium. “Through several programs, we are rolling out unprecedented outreach efforts to build a strong STEM pipeline in every ZIP code in our region. Research confirms it is during the K-12 years that interest in these in-demand fields is initiated, then cultivated to ensure a future workforce in STEM. We’ve recruited these industry experts, some who are first-generation graduates, to motivate and inspire our future engineers and scientists.”

Gonzales is one of those first-generation college graduates who shared his experience with the young students.

“The challenge when you’re the first in your family to take on higher education is you don’t have anyone to help you navigate, to tell you how you’re doing, to maybe show you where there might be shortcuts or places where your efficiency could be increased in getting through the system,” he said. “It’s important, I think, for me to help draw that image for students to let them know they can do it. I don’t want them to think it’s going to be easy. It was hard and there were times where I wanted to give up … I want them to know that they can do it. Just because they’re the first doesn’t mean they can’t.”

The industry expert added that sharing career insight is also critical, especially if students aren’t sure what engineering entails.

“I think my biggest interest in this symposium is to help the students, especially the ones that don’t have a lot of insight to what engineering is and what mission we accomplish through the application of the sciences that make up engineering. I really want to come and help ignite the passion behind filling those missions and make real all of the hard work that goes into getting your engineering degree and how that pays off in the future,” said Gonzales.

Northwest Early College High School student Allyson Givens hasn’t made a final career choice, but attended the outreach session to find out more about careers in engineering.

“I think it’s wonderful they (the speakers) thought it was important to spread the word about these fields … and how anyone can go into these fields, not just people that work in math and science,” she said.

Mom and Girl Scout Leader Emma Gutierrez said local events like SETS illustrate the career possibilities for students interested in STEM. She brought her seventh grade son and five of his friends.

“I feel that the earlier you expose the kids to these type of events, the kids will grow and enrich their minds,” Gutierrez said. “They realize technology is not a game, it’s a real thing.” 

John Scott of NASA Johnson Space Center attended the symposium to share his story and also find the next generation of engineers and scientists. 

“Middle school is where we tend to lose them,” Scott explained. “It is important for them [students] to understand the engineering profession and how they can make a big impact by being part of it. It’s important to keep them inspired, to keep them curious.”

Both NASA and Lockheed Martin have partnerships with UTEP that help nurture the next generation of experts in the industry through programs that engage students in research and the latest technology.

“I’ve always been impressed at the ability to bring in students who may not have considered college at all, much less the engineering profession, and keep them in,” Scott said. “The students they (UTEP’s College of Engineering) produce and graduate are top notch, and certainly there is a recruiting reason for me to be here as well.”

Aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin has also taken note of the caliber of UTEP graduates. Many, including Jesus Flores, Ph.D., have found success at the company testing rocket engines.

“The most important thing that I learned at UTEP was all the hands-on experience, especially in the labs; and not just the design and analysis, but also to build it and test it,” said the UTEP alum. 

Flores now works for Blue Origin at their testing facility in Van Horn, about two hours from El Paso. The alum attended the symposium and promoted internships and full-time employment. He said it was exciting to see so many students interested in the field and encouraged many to apply.

The industry is growing and experts say opportunities are only expected to increase. Gonzales offered some insight. 

“When we look at the demographic of our workforce today, we have folks that have been serving their missions for a number of years, and the age demographic has us with a little bit of a gap that we need to fill with fresh ideas, new people, new talent.”

For more information on K-12 outreach in the College of Engineering, including summer camp opportunities, visit and click on K-12.