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New center at UTPA fuels a bright future in STEM education
Posted: 09/25/2012
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The University of Texas-Pan American celebrated the opening of a new center Sept. 24 focused on strengthening the academic programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and increasing the number of STEM graduates, particularly from underrepresented groups.

Pictured at the Center of Excellence in STEM Education ribbon cutting are left to right Dr. Miguel Gonzalez, associate dean, College of Engineering and Computer Science; Dr. David Allen, dean, College of Engineering and Computer Science; Dr. Richard Fowler, professor of computer science; Dr. Robert Freeman, chair and professor, mechanical engineering; Dr. Robert Wrinkle, professor of political science; Dr. Olga Ramirez, professor of mathematics; Admiral Mark Ferguson, vice chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy; Dr. John Trant, dean, College of Science and Mathematics; U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15); Dr. Stephen Crown, professor of mechanical engineering; Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, UTPA president; and Dr. Cristina Villalobos, professor of math and director of the Center of Excellence in STEM Education.
Joined by Admiral Mark Ferguson, vice chief of Naval Operations in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, and a large crowd of supporters, the University cut the ribbon on its Center of Excellence in STEM Education during the first day of the University's 11th annual Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology (HESTEC) week. The center was made possible by a $3.7 million grant over four years from the U.S. Department of Defense. UTPA was one of only three institutions across the nation to receive the award.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, who welcomed guests to the center's official opening, said STEM education is the future.

"We are dedicated to making certain that our students are successful. STEM education is crucial. If we do not educate our students in the STEM disciplines, we will fail as a nation. This center is dedicated to not only our students but also our faculty that we do it right," he said.

The activities in the center will be directed to faculty professional development in Challenged-Based Instruction; the development and implementation of curricular materials in pre-college student outreach activities, such as TEX PREP, and undergraduate programs; undergraduate research; and the establishment of a student-faculty resource program.

The center crosses many disciplines and seeks to engage students effectively and early on in their academic careers, said College of Science and Mathematics Dean Dr. John Trant.

"Not only to students need to be engaged but our faculty need to be engaged. All our faculty will be engaged in exciting, new ways of teaching students so they are not just databases of information but truly engaged scholars," Trant said.

Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences Dr. David Allen cited some dire statistics regarding the nation's production of STEM graduates.

"China produces twice as many engineering degrees per capita than the United States. Of the top eight industrialized countries in the world, the United States is eighth in the production of engineering degrees per capita. That's not good enough. This center will address some of the problems and help solve them," he said.

The center, located on the second floor of the Mathematics and General Classroom Building, provides a centralized location for students and faculty to explore resources and technologies available to enhance and strengthen STEM courses.

The Center of Excellence in STEM Education at UTPA was made possible by a $3.7 million grant from the Department of Defense (DoD), one of only three awarded nationally. Admiral Mark Ferguson, vice chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Navy (pictured), represented the DoD at the center's ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The renovated space is equipped with an interactive Smart Board, 3-D wall projection and other software and technologies to enhance the educational experience for both students and faculty.

Collaborators in the grant include South Texas College, Texas A&M International University-Laredo, University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Dr. Cristina Villalobos, principal investigator of the grant, the center's director, and associate professor of mathematics, said the center is about our students and how education can change their lives and address the needs of the region and nation.

"As a product of the Rio Grande Valley, who attended a Head Start program, public schools and a TEX PREP program, who is a first-generation college graduate who received a doctorate degree in applied mathematics, who is now a tenured faculty member at UT Pan American, I recognize that it takes a community to nurture and prepare the next generation of engineers, scientists and mathematicians," Villalobos said. "I am not alone. With your support we will continue to grow and prepare our students to become leaders making contributions to their families, the Rio Grande Valley, our state of Texas and our nation."

Hinojosa said UTPA's selection as one of only three in the nation to receive the grant exemplifies the University's unwavering commitment to strive for excellence in the STEM fields and to strengthen the capacity of STEM education in all the deep South Texas region.

"UTPA is one of over 200 HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions) and I have to say it is one of the very best," he said. "It is my hope that the center's focus on strengthening academic programs through innovative teaching and research will help close the achievement gap that currently exists for women and minorities in the STEM fields."

Ferguson, who represented the Department of Defense and all the branches of the military at the ceremony, talked about the critical importance of STEM education and called the center a beginning in the efforts to address the need for more students to pursue STEM fields.

"It is a strategic imperative for us as a nation for our national defense and our future prosperity that we encourage young people to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics," he said. "The world is increasingly competitive and the challenges increasingly complex. Students from South Texas who will enter this center and work in these fields represent our future prosperity, our future security and our future as a global power in the years to come."

To learn more about the center, go to its website at www.utpa.edu/cstem. Visit a photo gallery to see more of the center's opening ceremony.