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UTEP, EPCC Biology STEMGrow Program Pushes Ahead Amid Pandemic Obstacles

Last Updated on July 10, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published July 10, 2020

By Darlene Barajas

UTEP Communications

The STEMGrow Program, a groundbreaking initiative between The University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College (EPCC) that has successfully stewarded students between the two institutions, continues to bridge gaps between faculty and students forced to be physically distant this summer by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Texas at El Paso and EPPC have had a successful partnership with the STEMGrow Program over the past four years. One of the more successful components of the STEMGrow program it’s summer biology bridge program which has had to make adjustments to its program due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Photo features students in the 2019 summer biology bridge program. Photo courtesy of Helen Geller, STEMGrow Program Manager.
The University of Texas at El Paso and EPPC have had a successful partnership with the STEMGrow Program over the past four years. One of the more successful components of the STEMGrow program it’s summer biology bridge program which has had to make adjustments to its program due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Photo features students in the 2019 summer biology bridge program. Photo courtesy of Helen Geller, STEMGrow Program Manager.

UTEP and EPPC have enjoyed a successful partnership through the STEMGrow Program throughout the past four years. The program was made possible by a $5.4 million grant from the Department of Education and was initially led by Peter Golding, Ph.D., professor of Engineering Education and Leadership at UTEP. The program is currently in the fourth year of a five-year award period and its management team, along with Golding, are drafting proposals for future grants to foster continuation of the program.

One of the more successful components of the STEMGrow program is its summer biology bridge program, which has made adjustments due to the pandemic.

The biology bridge program sees contributions from various UTEP faculty members including Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D.; Vanessa Lougheed, Ph.D.; Jerry Johnson, Ph.D.; and Douglas Watts, Ph.D., all professors in the Department of Biological Sciences, along with Kevin Floyd, Ph.D., a botanical curator at the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens.

The UTEP contingent oversees EPCC biology students who work as research interns in UTEP’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology labs. For eight weeks, students conduct rigorous hands-on biological research in both the lab and field. The summer culminates with a professional symposium where the students present their research posters alongside research students from throughout the state. 

These experiences have been hindered by COVID-19. But even with social distancing measures in place, student interns are finding ways to carry out hands-on field data collection by sampling in their own backyards or going alone on field trips to local wetlands. While physically distant from faculty members, the students are never truly alone because they are in constant contact with their mentors throughout the process. 

“We are finding that by having to meet virtually as a whole team every week, students are getting even more feedback and support from the entire STEMGrow team,” said Helen Geller, program manager for UTEP’S STEMGrow grant. “In prior years, students typically only got feedback regularly from their direct mentors and only occasionally from the whole team. It seems that this more repetitive meeting schedule is making the team ‘closer’ in some aspects even though it is remotely being carried out.”

Geller concedes that the current COVID-19 situation has made this year very different. Participants can no longer meet face-to-face in research laboratories or in the field for weekly field trips to area wetlands for specimen sampling and data collection. Instead, they undertake professional development and research at a distance using video conferencing to conduct daily meetings and mentoring. Graduate student mentors spend 20-plus hours a week working with students via video to carry out virtual lab tours; virtual field trips; video tutorials on statistical analysis, equipment use and sampling techniques; and research poster preparation. Student interns conduct weekly presentations on their tasks and the evolution of their posters through PowerPoint presentations to the whole group of interns, graduate student mentors and UTEP and EPCC faculty and staff. The interns then receive constructive feedback continually to keep growing as researchers.

“On May 31, 2020, I had no idea what the next two months would look like,” said Jaime Gutierrez Portillo, a current STEMGrow summer intern and sophomore from EPCC.Now, almost four weeks later, it’s easy to say all my expectations have been exceeded so far. Experiencing a summer research program through a screen is probably the furthest it can be from the norm, but STEMGrow has adapted splendidly. That some equipment has been delivered to certain students so they can perform experiments is just an example of how it has been possible to overcome the lack of access to UTEP facilities this summer. The fact that all is done remotely is just a testament to the commitment of the program to help us be successful.”

Gutierrez Portillo adds that program organizers Geller and Paul Hotchkin of EPCC make students feel comfortable and give them the courage and foundation to present scientific research appropriately. Gutierrez Portillo calls that experience invaluable, regardless of the mode of teaching through which it is provided.

Before June, faculty members expressed doubt over whether the summer program would be a successful venture for the team and students. They worried that the lack of face-to-face instruction and field trips would be a detriment to the effectiveness of the student interns’ learning and research experiences. But, as the program passes its halfway point, they are seeing things very differently. 

“Our student interns are definitely growing and learning as scientists through the continuous support and mentoring of the graduate students and the professional development offered to them,” Geller said. “This has included workshops on the value of attending professional scientific meetings and seminars, networking and building a professional portfolio, information on UTEP’s College of Science and the transfer process, financial aid and scholarship tips, and several scientific research presentation prep workshops. 

EPCC sophomore and summer intern Queenie Trinh expressed gratitude that the STEMGrow summer program continued and allowed her to work in UTEP’s mosquito lab despite the changes presented by COVID-19.

“We don’t have access to the same equipment and facilities as previous years, so the interns won’t be doing any DNA sequencing, for example, and there is no longer the public outreach associated with the mosquito lab which decreases the amount of specimens we can collect,” Trinh said. “But this program has still been a great chance to gain research experience. People within the program have volunteered to participate in trapping mosquitos. My mentor and Paul Hotchkin have been delivering mosquitoes and equipment, and overall, there has been a lot of effort put in to provide the most educational and memorable experience possible. I have gotten to collect data, see presentations from graduate students and UTEP faculty, given weekly presentations to the other interns and mentors, and STEMGrow continues to connect us with further opportunities.” 

Hotchkin, a biology instructor at EPCC, said that this summer’s edition of the STEMGrow program has been a study in a new realm of conducting research. He added that one of its unforeseen benefits has been a boon for the environment.

“Especially encouraging about this summer’s version of STEMGrow is our reduced carbon footprint,” Hotchkin said. “Limiting carbon emissions is key to turn around the environmental crisis on our planet. By having all faculty, staff and students complete their research duties from home, the cumulative carbon emissions of the STEMGrow program are much smaller than in previous years. Our program is proud that we are contributing to the scientific community, and to the development of our cohort member’s academic careers while pioneering a new, energy-efficient way of doing research.”

STEMGrow mentors have also reaped benefits from working remotely. Nikki Donegan, a UTEP biology graduate student who was a program intern in 2017, said she has enjoyed connecting with her fellow students, even from a distance.

“Mentoring virtually has been a challenge because you are not working side-by-side in the field,” Donegan said. “As a mentor, I do my best to explain the methods before the student tries to perform the steps alone in their own backyard or using their own computer. These students have a different challenge because, although we interact, the necessary physical distancing can cause confusion. In spite of the challenges that online mentoring poses, we are still connecting with our students and they are still learning the importance of observation in scientific investigations on a smaller scale.”

Laura Valdez, an undergraduate biology student at UTEP is a current mentor who served as an intern in 2019, echoed Donegan’s sentiments.

Working with STEMGrow students allows me to see the progress they make toward their career in STEM,” Valdez said. “The program gives them a head start and insight into what it takes to be successful in this competitive field. The resourcefulness within the program enables the students with the possibility to be successful in their future endeavors. It is an honor to be a part of this future success.”