White House Bus Tour Rolls into UTEP

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

The University of Texas at El Paso’s success in creating opportunities for expanding Hispanic participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has the White House paying close attention to UTEP.

“It is so critical for me to have this opportunity with you all because STEM education is a critical issue for our country,” said Alejandra Ceja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH) during a town hall at UTEP on Sept. 6. “You are doing something that we need more people across the country to replicate. UTEP is on the map.”A panel discussion about STEM education and Hispanics during a town hall at UTEP’s Tomás Rivera Conference Center on Sept. 6 included, seated from left, UTEP President Diana Natalicio, El Paso Community College President William Serrata, Socorro Independent School District Superintendent José Espinoza, WHIEEH Executive Director Alejandra Ceja and moderator UTEP College of Science Dean Robert Kirken. UTEP was the last stop on the White House Back-to-School Texas Tour. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceA panel discussion about STEM education and Hispanics during a town hall at UTEP’s Tomás Rivera Conference Center on Sept. 6 included, seated from left, UTEP President Diana Natalicio, El Paso Community College President William Serrata, Socorro Independent School District Superintendent José Espinoza, WHIEEH Executive Director Alejandra Ceja and moderator UTEP College of Science Dean Robert Kirken. UTEP was the last stop on the White House Back-to-School Texas Tour. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

The University was the last stop on the WHIEEH's Back-to-School Texas Tour 2013, which kicked off Sept. 4 in Corpus Christi. The tour made nine stops in seven cities throughout South and West Texas to share information about President Barack Obama’s education agenda and engage community leaders in discussions about education and Hispanics.

Ceja was part of a panel that included UTEP President Diana Natalicio, El Paso Community College President William Serrata and Socorro Independent School District Superintendent José Espinoza.

The discussion highlighted successful strategies for engaging Hispanics in STEM education that include collaborations between the University, EPCC and the school districts that emphasize math and science curriculums. Also, the support that UTEP receives from federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, has resulted in early outreach efforts with schools and math and science partnerships.

“This is a University that has really addressed Hispanics in STEM at the university level in a very credible way, and we’ve demonstrated through sustained commitment that you can achieve remarkable success if you simply focus on two words - access and excellence,” President Natalicio said.

The town hall also served as an opportunity for the panel to gather feedback from students, faculty and educators about issues concerning education attainment for Hispanics that will be used to inform education policymaking in Washington. 

“The importance of being out in the community helps my office, helps me work with (U.S. Education) Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama and the White House education advisors on making sure that we have targeted investments that will ensure that we continue to have more of our students benefiting from a cradle to career approach so that they are enrolled in early learning,” Ceja said. 

The audience asked the panel to address such issues as university graduation rates, high-stakes testing in schools, initiatives for limited English proficient students, teacher incentives, STEM lab funding for 2-year colleges and tax breaks for STEM industries.

Roya Edalatpour, a sophomore electrical engineering major at UTEP, told the panel that her experience attending a charter school allowed her to get involved in extracurricular activities that piqued her interest in a STEM career. However, her sister, who is an aspiring architect, does not have the same opportunities because she attends a public school that lacks the funding to engage students in after-school activities involving science, technology, engineering or math.

“I feel that was very critical in me deciding to major in a STEM career,” Edalatpour said, referring to her involvement in STEM activities in school.   

She asked the panel if it was possible for the government to increase public school funding to expose students to STEM careers through extracurricular activities.

Ceja said President Obama has a proposal before Congress that would increase the $2.9 billion in STEM funding by 6.7 percent.

“Exposure is so critical, so we do recognize that,” Ceja said. “The President is really trying to bring more national attention to the importance of STEM education … It’s definitely something we are working on. We have that budget proposal before Congress and we’re going to work hard so that we can have more students in the public school system that would have access to STEM.” 

As part of EPCC’s efforts to increase elementary school students’ participation in STEM, the college is adopting an elementary school in the Socorro Independent School District. Students will take tours of the college’s science labs and interact with research faculty in the classroom.

“We’ll get them engaged on a college campus, in a science classroom, with technology, in a mathematics course, and with one of our faculty,” Serrata said.

President Natalicio said any advancement in enhancing K-12 education is critically important and the University and the community college can be helpful through outreach activities.

UTEP offers summer programs in engineering, including ExciTES, which stands for Excellence in Technology, Engineering and Science, that are open to middle and high school students.

In 2012, UTEP hosted 8,000 elementary and middle school students during Opportunity Days, a conference with Opportunity Nation that was designed to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM.

UTEP also houses the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a broad-based, citywide collaboration of education, business and civic leaders that has worked for 20 years to transform schooling and ensure academic success for all young El Pasoans.

“I think one of the important roles of the El Paso Collaborative is to try to join resources where we can, so that young people from middle school to high school have an opportunity to learn more about what is available,” President Natalicio said.

With more than 54 million people, Hispanics are the largest minority group in the nation, and one of the youngest populations.

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics is a multi-agency working group within the Department of Education charged with strengthening the nation's capacity to provide high quality education while increasing opportunities for Hispanic-American participation in federal education programs.