The University of Texas-Pan American and the Progreso Independent School District are working together to develop the next generation of engineers.
Since January, Progreso ISD Early College & Preparatory School has been offering its pre-engineering program to students interested in science and math. UTPA faculty members also taught courses to middle and high school students during the summer where students designed, built and flew model airplanes, assembled solar panels and learned about the human body.
Drs. Subhash Bose, Kevin Lee and Kamalaksha Sarkar, all UTPA College of Engineering and Computer Science faculty members, worked with Dr. Fernando Castillo, the public school district's superintendent, and other school district personnel in developing the curricula for the programs and designing facilities for the school to use.
The UTPA faculty members also recently submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health seeking $1.25 million over five years to provide technology for students and build laboratory space for the program. The district recently had a $9 million bond approved that will allow it to build a facility for its science and technology programs.
Progreso ISD also hired about a half dozen graduates from UTPA's engineering programs to teach courses to high school students.
Though it has only been in existence for less than a year, the pre-engineering program's enrollment has at least tripled. About 24 students enrolled in the first classes offered last spring and approximately 30 students took the summer courses offered.
This fall, more than 100 students are attending the pre-engineering classes, Bose said.
"It's amazing. The students really like it," Bose said. "They're able to talk using engineering language."
In addition to math and science classes, the program offers courses in computer-aided design and drafting, alternative energy, manufacturing and others to prepare students for a variety of jobs in the many disciplines of engineering, including mechanical, civil, manufacturing and biomedical.
"At Progreso we're not only teaching math and science, we're introducing students to the concepts of engineering. The lessons are more relevant and students love what they're learning," said Edna Orozco, one of the UTPA students who is now teaching at the high school. Orozco received her bachelor's and master's degrees in manufacturing engineering from the University.
Orozco, who was also recently named Progreso ISD's teacher of the month at the secondary level, said serving as a teaching assistant at UTPA in addition to research opportunities she had as an undergraduate helped prepare her greatly in becoming a teacher of engineering. Her ultimate goal is to earn a doctorate and teach at the university level.
Sarkar said the creation of the pre-engineering program at Progreso ISD came in response to the need to train the next generation of engineers and recruit minority students to pursue careers related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Sarkar, whose background is in biomedical research, taught a biomedical engineering course at the high school last summer and continues to work with the district in expanding the engineering programs.
Sarkar said forming the partnership with Progreso ISD is important because many of the students come from economically disadvantaged households and need extra support from teachers to encourage them to continue their education beyond high school and pursue careers in the sciences.
"It's very, very important for us in the field of education to hold their hand and say, 'Don't feel lonely,'" Sarkar said.
Sarkar said he also wants to recruit as many female students in the biomedical engineering program because females are underrepresented in the science and engineering fields.
Many times girls who have an interest and talent in the sciences are encouraged to pursue careers in the medical field but not engineering, he said.
Students enrolled in the early college high school program earn college credits while attending high school. They can graduate with up to 60 college credits, said Castillo.
The district begins recruiting students in the seventh grade who show an interest in math and science. Many students are intimidated by the extensive math and science courses they're required to take at first, but once they begin their studies that apprehension dissipates, Castillo said. In the past year, students developed solar panels and wind turbines for their class projects.
"It's exciting that a small district can do these things," Castillo said.
Castillo said it has been a dream of his to transform his district into offering a pre-engineering program. He also said he is grateful to UTPA faculty for their cooperation and help.
"We couldn't have done it without them," Castillo said. "You can have the vision but you need to have the experts. UT Pan Am has a fantastic program and fantastic individuals there. We're very excited to work with Pan American; they're doers, they quickly move to implementation."
Students enrolled in the program said they love the hands-on projects in their classes and in the engineering club at their school.
Anaie Mendoza, a 17-year-old senior at Progreso High School, said she enjoyed building and programming a LEGO robot her team named "Cosmo" that they entered in UTPA's Robotics Day competition. Though their robot didn't win its battle, Mendoza said she and her teammates learned much from that experience and have used that knowledge in the creation of another robot they plan to enter in another competition in December.
"It's really amazing what you can build and do," Mendoza said. "It's a fun program to be in and a good learning environment. If you don't understand something someone will help you."
Sarkar and Castillo said they hope to expand the program so that students in elementary and middle school will be exposed to engineering and other STEM-related fields.
"The question is, when should we start teaching our students engineering? ...When do you teach a kid to play soccer, when he's 16 or 17 years old or when he doesn't even know how to spell the word soccer? It's the same thing with engineering. Should we not start teaching engineering when they don't even know how to spell the word engineering," Sarkar said.
Bose and Sarkar said the ultimate goal is to expand similar programs to high schools throughout the Rio Grande Valley. If they receive the NIH grant, part of the money will be used to train about 300 teachers to educate students in engineering. The faculty members estimate that those 300 instructors will impact 10,000 students.