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.
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.
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."