Over the last few years, leaders at Southwest Texas Junior College and Angelo State University – two Hispanic-Serving Institutions – witnessed incredible job growth and opportunity in the field of engineering all over west Texas. Neither institution had a program to train future engineers, so talent was brought in from outside while local aspiring engineers looked elsewhere for their education. Seeking to fill this gap in education and address workforce needs sparked the idea for STEP (Strengthening the Engineering Pipeline) West Texas, a partnership between Angelo State and Southwest Texas Junior College (SWTJC).
Funded by a 2014 Title V grant from the U.S. Department of Education, STEP West Texas includes the development of an Associate of Science in Engineering Sciences at SWTJC and a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering at Angelo State with shared resources and course articulation between the two institutions. Each program will welcome its first students this fall, but enthusiasm has run high at both institutions for some time. “There’s excitement about seeing people from this area working as engineers in west Texas,” said Robert Ayala, Arts and Sciences Division Chair at Southwest Texas Junior College.
The STEP partnership aims to support students in an area that is mostly rural, largely Hispanic (47 percent), and high poverty (19 percent). Texas employs more civil engineering technicians, a position attainable with an associate degree, than any other state, with an average yearly salary of $45,090. Those earnings would offer a welcome boost to many families in the area served by the STEP partnership; the median household income in Eagle Pass is $33,646 and is $32,339 in Uvalde, cities home to two SWTJC campuses. Those who hold bachelor’s degrees in civil engineering have yet more opportunities open to them. As of May 2014, over 23,000 civil engineers were employed in Texas, earning an average of $100,330 per year.
The vastness of the region served by SWTJC’s widely dispersed campuses necessitates some form of distance education to give residents access to the new engineering program. To broaden the reach of the program, Angelo State will begin broadcasting one physics class to four SWTJC campuses this fall through interactive television (ITV). ITV classes link a professor in one classroom with classes full of students at multiple locations, all watching, listening, and responding in real time. Holding an ITV class seemed to be the fastest way to get a high number of students access to the class, explained Brandy Hawkins, Director of Grants and Operations at Angelo State. Though SWTJC students in the pilot ITV physics class will have lectures given by an Angelo State professor, they will work hands-on in labs on their home SWTJC campuses, blending off-campus expertise with on-campus practical experience. In August, STEP partners will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for ITV at all campuses offering interactive television options for coursework to celebrate the institutional partnership and classroom experience tying their campuses and students together.
Excelencia in Education names building institutional partnerships, offering academic advising, and working with a mentor as helpful means of building pathways for Latinos in STEM, all of which factor into STEP West Texas. Another important aspect of STEP West Texas is to offer support services and mentorships to students as they transition from SWTJC to Angelo State. After students at SWTJC campuses complete the first year of their associate program, they will be invited to spend the summer at Angelo State in the Summer STEM Academy. While at San Angelo, SWTJC students will live on campus and attend classes taught by the very professors who will greet them when they transfer to Angelo State the following year. They’ll also benefit from Angelo State academic advising, peer mentoring by an Angelo State student, and growing familiarity with the campus and university life. In addition, students who begin the BSCE at Angelo State or who transfer from SWTJC can join a “living learning community” once they arrive. As in the Summer STEM Academy, students in living learning communities will live in residence halls and work with peer and faculty mentors. The goal is to encourage the formation of a cohort within the program and to increase retention through graduation day.
When the Texas Coordinating Board of Higher Education gave final approval for Angelo State’s bachelor’s program in April of this year, “both campuses exploded with excitement,” said Hawkins. In her eyes, the programs never would have come into being without the Title V grant. “The Department of Education may not even realize how huge this is to the campuses and to our region,” she said. “This is a game-changer.”