Chile Looks to UTEP as Model of Excellence

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

This spring Benjamin C. Flores, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School, took a trip to Chile to check up on a project he’s had a hand in for about a decade – student support and retention.

Flores has been advising several universities in the country on how to help first-year engineering students since the National Science Foundation recognized UTEP as a Model Institution for Excellence (MIE) in 2004.Benjamin C. Flores, Ph.D. (third from left), dean of the Graduate School, held a tutoring workshop for first-generation science and engineering tutors at Universidad de Concepción in Chile. Benjamin C. Flores, Ph.D. (third from left), dean of the Graduate School, held a tutoring workshop for first-generation science and engineering tutors at Universidad de Concepción in Chile.

“Back then, I was invited by Chile’s Ministry of Education to give a talk about our MIE initiative,” said Flores, who is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “They had heard we were implementing a number of learner-centered projects dedicated to curriculum reform, academic support, and faculty enhancement programs for effective teaching.”

In Chile, a basic engineering degree takes six years of school, and according to Flores, many drop out during their first year. Only one in 10 end up with a degree in eight years.

Celin Mora, Ph.D., of the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa Maria (UTFSM), one of the universities that Flores visited, said his university began in 2003 to look into the reasons behind those academic results.

“To do this, we started to analyze the problem and got to know various experiences in the U.S.A.,” Mora said. “In particular, we observed the work of UTEP with its Academic Center for Engineers and Scientists (ACES) and the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning (CETaL), which resonated with the nature of our academic problems with first-year engineers.”

UTEP’s ACES is a center in the colleges of Engineering and Science dedicated solely to engineering students and science undergraduates. It provides academic support like tutoring, and business and professional support for both classroom and beyond-the-classroom work.

CETaL is a faculty and student based support network dedicated to developing excellence in teaching and learning at UTEP. It offers teacher effectiveness assessments to help professors improve their students’ learning and prepare for lifelong challenges.

Mora observed these centers in-person during a visit to UTEP about five years ago, and took back the ideas to his own university in Chile, including tutoring – an unfamiliar concept in the country’s colleges.

“What Dr. Mora really liked was the fact that we had tutors who specialized in math, science and engineering, and that our student population had similar needs,” Flores said. “Because of us, UTFSM was actually the first university in all of Chile to implement an engineering tutoring center.”

Today, Mora runs the Center for Integrated Learning of the Sciences (CIAC) at his institution, which is modeled directly after UTEP’s ACES.

“CIAC has had a significant impact on the learning of students and has improved the quality of our process for first-year engineers,” he said. “The good results in the seven years of the functioning of CIAC has led to the institutional decision of the extension of the initiative to all the university’s campuses.”

During his visit, Flores also checked in on the progress of two other universities – Universidad de Concepción and the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. He helped lead tutoring workshops and offer advice on a university seminar course designed to improve first-year student skills in communication and learning. It is considered a key course for student retention.

“This whole process has been transformational,” Flores said. “Now you have university programs dedicated to students, and faculty interested in how their students learn. The country is changing dramatically for the better.”

Indeed, more than 1 million students are enrolled today in postsecondary institutions in Chile, compared to fewer than 250,000 in 1990, according to Americas Society and Council of the Americas. Today, seven of 10 Chileans attending university are from the first generation in their families to do so.

In 2010, the Chilean Society of Education in Engineering recognized UTFSM’s CIAC as the best institutional initiative for the foundation and formation of engineers.