UTEP to Launch Groundbreaking STEMGrow Program

Last Updated on April 05, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published April 05, 2017

By Chyanne Smith

UTEP Communications

Students at The University of Texas at El Paso are talented, asset rich and ready to succeed in the classroom, world of work and the global community. UTEP is capitalizing on these strengths by creating programs and activities that increase student learning and professional development.

STEMGrow organizers include, from left: Carlos Amaya, EPCC; Roberto Ransom, UTEP Department of Engineering Education and Leadership; Peter Golding, Center for Research in Engineering and Technology Education; Monica Avillar, UTEP Office of Research and Sponsored Projects; Robert Elliot, EPCC Grants Management Office; Elizabeth Walsh, UTEP Department of Biological Sciences; Crystal Fernandez Pena, UTEP Center for Research in Engineering and Technology Education; Jonathan Macias, UTEP Office of Research and Sponsored Projects; Maribel Gomez, EPCC Grants Management Office; Scott Starks, UTEP Department of Engineering Education and Leadership; Fan Chen, EPCC; and Dominic Lannutti, EPCC. Photo: Courtesy of UTEP College of Engineering

One of the newest such programs is a partnership with El Paso Community College (EPCC) called STEMGrow. The program focuses on achieving the next generation of student engagement and professional preparation.

STEMGrow has been made possible by $5.4 million grant from the Department of Education awarded to an interdisciplinary team of researchers from UTEP and EPCC under the leadership of principal investigator Peter Golding, Ph.D., UTEP professor of engineering education and leadership with a specialty in metallurgical materials engineering.

“Rather than compete with our colleagues for this grant, we proposed to work together and create a partnership,” Golding said. “We understood that the whole we can achieve is bigger than the sum of the parts. Creating the program was not about UTEP or EPCC, but about growing the success of our common students.” 

STEMGrow supports determined men and women in the region like Celena Arreola, a senior engineering leadership major, in transitioning between the two institutions to improve the graduation rate of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Arreola begins each morning at 3 a.m., when she wakes up to complete homework and prepare for class while the rest of her family sleeps. At 6 a.m., she wakes up her 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son for school preparations, and she and her husband get ready for the day. She arrives at UTEP before 8 a.m. and spends the day balancing her full-time course schedule and her work as a research assistant. While Arreola is at school and her husband at work, her mother, mother-in-law, and aunt help take care of the children until she and her husband can arrive home.

“I have a very good support system,” Arreola said. “My family understands that, once I graduate, I will be able to advance my whole family’s success. My husband, especially, has always worked very hard to support our family.” 

Arreola began her higher education journey at El Paso Community College (EPCC) in the spring 2009 semester after graduating from high school as a junior in 2008. After receiving a scholarship for graduating early, she chose to enroll at EPCC so she could begin to pursue her dream to be “a great member of our society while also becoming a great mother and be close to home.”

At EPCC, Arreola met with an adviser every semester to ensure she was always on track, completing her associate degree in three years. At that point, she knew she wanted to do more. Her adviser guided and assisted her with the transition to UTEP.

“I was scared, but very excited because I felt like I was taking the next step to get where I wanted to be professionally,” Arreola said. “The transition between EPCC and UTEP was smooth. My adviser helped me fill out all of the necessary paperwork and transfer my credits to UTEP.”

After studying El Paso region postsecondary education trends, UTEP interdisciplinary STEM researchers noted that, while the transfer rate between UTEP and EPCC is steadily increasing, STEM student retention at EPCC has seen a 10 percent drop over the past three years, and students leaving STEM fields to pursue other degrees has increased 26 percent. Engineering and biological sciences comprise a majority of students undertaking STEM studies and transferring across institutions, thus the researchers began to focus on the opportunity to help students in these fields.

“Students like to see the benefit of what they’re doing right away,” said Fan Chen, assistant professor of mathematics at EPCC. “If they don’t see the benefit, they lose interest. For example, in math they see that it’s hard but they don’t see the application and they think there’s no way they can go into engineering, so they transfer into a different field.”

Arreola started out at UTEP as a math major. After beginning in Principals of Mathematics and learning about the theories and proofs of mathematics, she found she missed actually working with numbers. She spoke with her UTEP adviser about her concerns, and her adviser suggested she try engineering. Upon taking a course in graphic fundamentals, Arreola fell in love with engineering. She soon switched to civil engineering, where she found that she was passionate about helping the environment and met many new friends who shared her passions. 

Two semesters into civil engineering, Arreola discovered the newly established Department of Engineering Education and Leadership after her mother read about it in a local newspaper.

“After my first course in the new undergraduate engineering degree program (known as E-Lead), I knew this is really where I wanted to be,” Arreola said. “I felt like I had learned how to learn, and gained the ability to take what I had learned and apply it across everything I was doing.” 

Arreola is set to graduate in May 2017. After graduation, she plans to work as a civil engineer in the environmental sector to help improve the quality of life in the El Paso region. She also plans to pursue a master’s degree and obtain her license as a professional engineer.

The STEMGrow program aims to create more stories like Arreola’s and grow Hispanic student success in STEM education. It is designed to ensure that students who enroll at UTEP and EPCC have appropriate STEM guidance, advising and learning supports, and effective STEM instruction through their senior year so they can graduate with STEM degrees and pursue STEM careers or graduate programs.

In the program, students will begin with common introductory courses at EPCC and UTEP that will introduce them to postsecondary studies with an emphasis on STEM skills. They will have access to articulated courses in all STEM degree programs between EPCC and UTEP to enable smooth transition between the institutions. 

“Our vision starts at the beginning with their experience in that introductory course,” said Carlos Amaya, dean at the EPCC Valle Verde Campus. “It will allow them to see what people in the field are doing, as well as give them experiences in biology, math and engineering that will allow them to transfer to UTEP and continue those experiences in similar programs.” 

Alongside introductory courses that will enable students to see the applications of STEM, the STEMGrow Program will build, pilot, expand and institute a STEM guidance and mentoring program through a partnership with the award-winning nonprofit organization EduGuide. EduGuide will serve as a platform to surround students with a supportive social network of faculty, staff, alumni and employers, and increase Hispanic student persistence in STEM fields by embedding non-cognitive activities, which will enable them to develop a core purpose for how they can contribute to their families and communities by growing their knowledge.

After transferring from EPCC to UTEP, STEMGrow students will be introduced to academic research programs and will receive placement assistance by UTEP’s Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI). The personal attention the students will receive within the research programs will become an integral part of enhancing their aspirations to complete their degrees.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to work with engineering, ecology, evolution and the environment, for example, and we want to help our students increase their awareness of the many types of career opportunities that are available,” said Elizabeth Walsh, Ph.D., UTEP professor of biological sciences. “One of the main benefits of the STEMGrow Program is that it will provide students with the opportunity to realize all of the exciting and diverse careers available in engineering and biology beyond biomedical sciences. They’ll get to interface with some of our community partners and do research in the field, like at our own Rio Bosque Wetlands, showcasing career opportunities.” 

In addition to Walsh, other UTEP co-principal investigators of the program include Vanessa Lougheed, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, and Scott Starks, Ph.D., professor of engineering education and leadership with a specialty in electrical and computer engineering.

The STEMGrow Program also aims to increase the retention of STEM students with disabilities through strategies to support special needs student persistence. The EPCC Center for Students with Disabilities team, led by director Janet Lockhart, is partnering with UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services, led by assistant director Neelam Agarwal, to institute evidence-based interventions to overcome barriers affecting the engagement of students with disabilities in STEM fields.

Because STEMGrow is the first program of its kind in the nation, leaders of the program hope that it serves as an example for other U.S. universities to increase minority student success in STEM fields.

“Our program is designed to build self-efficacy,” Golding said. “Working together, the STEMGrow Program capitalizes on the strengths of our students. We are creating environments and activities that promote integrated learning and applied professional development, core STEM capacities, and persistence. The overarching design goal is for EPCC and UTEP together to complete a STEM program that grows student success in STEM education. Our implementation can serve as a STEM educational model for universities in the 21st century.”