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The Science Guy

April 3rd, 2014

Clad in his signature multicolored bowtie, Bill Nye kicked off his visit to UTPA Tuesday, April 1 with a blend of comedy and science aptitude. As the second speaker for the 2013-14 Distinguished Speaker Series, the first being columnist Ruben Navarrette, Nye spoke to a packed Field House about the necessity of science.

One of Nye’s main talking points concerned the changing climate of Earth. According to the 58-year-old Cornell alumnus, Earth’s carbon dioxide levels have increased significantly since 1997.

“Everybody in this room, or almost everybody, was alive, when that number changed from .03 to .04 (percent),” said the former star of Bill Nye the Science Guy, which aired from 1993-2011. “In your lifetime, the Earth’s atmosphere has gone up a third.”

To better illustrate the significance of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, Nye explained it in terms of the atmospheres on Venus and Mars. Both planets possess atmospheres that are made up of more than 95 percent carbon dioxide. As a result, both celestial objects have climates much different from Earth, and much deadlier.

“The clouds are made of sulfuric acid,” Nye said of Venus’ environment. “The reason Mars is the way that it is and the reason Venus is the way it is, is largely because of carbon dioxide.”

What is worrisome, according to Nye, is that increased levels of the gas result in the thinning of the atmosphere and this can lead to problems for humanity. The population increased to 3 billion when the scientist was in third grade. Now, it stands at more than 7 billion.

“The world’s population has more than doubled in my lifetime,” said the author of numerous children’s books, including Bill Nye The Science Guy’s Big Blast Of Science. “So the atmosphere of the Earth is thin, it’s got enough carbon dioxide to keep us warm. But now we have 7 billion people using it. Every single thing you ever do affects everybody in the whole world. We all share the air. There is nobody who doesn’t breathe the air.”

Nye has contributed to climate change discussions in the past. In January 2012 the scientist wrote the foreword for Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. Based on the findings of a 2001 report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, the book uses the “hockey stick,” a chart showing global temperature data over the past one thousand years, as the crux of its argument. The graph illustrates the rising temperature and the increased rate at which it is occurring due to carbon dioxide levels.

The theory has faced scrutiny as recent as May 2013, with doubters arguing that it was too simple and that uncertainties in historical climate readings were disregarded to make the chart more dramatic. But opposition aside, Nye still supports the theory.

“It’s not the temperature of the world as such, it’s the rate, the speed at which is changing,” Nye said at the presentation. “That is our problem. And by our problem, I mean your problem.”

In addition to climate change, Nye also spoke about his continuing debate concerning creationism being taught as science. In February, Nye debated Kevin Ham, founder of the Kentucky-based Creation Museum, about the origins of life. Ham argued that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago and that the Bible tells factual information about the origins of Earth and life.

“They want to teach creationism in schools,” Nye said during the question-and-answer session at the end of the presentation. “That’s fine, if they want to teach it as philosophy or history of myths. If you want to teach creationism as part of that, that’s fine, but it’s not science.”

Isela Lopez was one of the more than 3 million people  who tuned in to the debate earlier this year. The business management major, and fan of Nye, entered an essay contest to have dinner with the celebrity prior to the presentation.

“I’ve loved Bill Nye since I was young,” the sophomore said. “Every Friday I would watch him in elementary. I have Bill Nye to thank for most of my science knowledge.”

While Lopez is not pursuing a science degree, she believes the presentation for the Speakers Series was relevant and important to everyone.

“I know I’m not a scientist, I don’t understand as much as I wish, but I know science is everywhere,” Lopez said. “Even though science isn’t my calling, people who have that power to study that, should be able to pursue it, and someone like him coming here to talk to us…it must mean a lot to them. It even means a lot to me and I’m not a science major.”

This idea was reinforced by Nye’s closing statements.

“That is the essence of science. It is inherently optimistic,” he said. “To celebrate the joy of knowing, that joy of discovery that is deep within us. It’s what drives us. You can, dare I say, change the world.”


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Cancer advances in the Valley

November 22nd, 2013

This year, 117,371 Texans will be diagnosed with cancer and 41,362 are estimated to die of the disease, according to a report by the Texas Department of Health Services fact sheet. Of these, 2,758 new cancer cases and 949 deaths are estimated to occur in Hidalgo County.

With these statistics in mind, the Regional Academic Health Center will now offer the new Genetic Risk Assessment for Cancer in All South Texas (GRACIAS Texas) program in the Rio Grande Valley to help people with a family history of breast and colon cancer determine their own risk of developing the diseases. The assessments will include genetic counseling and testing.

GRACIAS is sponsored by a three-year grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. It will allow genetic counselors to work with at-risk families in the Valley and, for certain individuals, it will cover the costs for genetic testing.

“Genetic testing is a way that may help individuals determine their risks of getting cancer,” said Bimal Banik, a professor in the Department of Chemistry.

Banik is the first President’s Endowed Professor of Science and Engineering at UTPA and has authored more than 635 publications, presentations and patents that explore the biomedical science behind anticancer agents.

The Genetics Home Reference, a service provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, explains that depending on the nature and complexity of the tests, the cost of genetic testing can range from $100 to more than $2,000, and increase further if multiple family members must be tested.

“A long-term study is required to conduct genetic counseling, but it is worthy to pursue it. Importantly, it is wise to keep all the options open to individuals who are at high-risk of cancer,” Banik said. “(GRACIAS Texas) will be really important.”

According to the National Institute of Health, genetic tests are medical processes that can help people with a history of cancer in their families predict their risk of getting a disease by looking for gene changes in DNA or RNA from their blood or other fluids, such as saliva or tissues. The gene changes are passed from one generation to the next and are present in every cell in the body.

While genetic counseling and testing can be used to determine the risks faced by individuals with cancer in their families, it can do little to prevent or stop the diseases from developing.
“Early detection of cancer is the most crucial. (With it), patients would receive better treatments and numerous options,” Banik said.

However, according to Marianita Escamilla, a lecturer in the Department of English, her symptoms began suddenly and unexpectedly. If she hadn’t insisted her doctor examine her thoroughly in 2010, her breast cancer would have gone undetected, she said. In her family, only her great aunt had suffered from the disease.

“I began feeling a sharp burning sensation at my left breast,” said Escamilla, who has worked at UTPA for 11 years. “But because there was no present lumps or typical signs of breast cancer, the doctor kept telling me I was okay. That nothing was wrong.”

However, despite what the doctor told her, her pain said otherwise.

“Listen to your body,” Escamilla said. “It turns out I had HER2 positive breast cancer after they did a mammogram.”

According to the American Cancer Society, HER2 is a growth-promoting protein that 1 in 5 breast cancer patients have. Without treatment, cancers with high amounts of the protein grow and spread more aggressively.

“Women with this type of cancer, according to the doctors, last no more than one year,” said Escamilla, who has been undergoing treatment for three years and six months.

In 2009, cancer was the leading cause of death for Hispanics and Latinos, and as a result, the need for research to reduce cancer among the Hispanic population in the U.S. has significantly increased, according to Banik.

However, Banik said that present issues in the Valley may affect research and the adequate treatment of patients.

“Part of the cancer burden among the Hispanic populations is due to lack of screening and early diagnosis. Additionally, low income and lack of health insurance coverage bring further problems,” the chemistry professor said. “Despite significant progress in the Rio Grande Valley areas in a number of ways, cancer research is ignored here.”

As a result, among the many objectives of his research, Banik strives to increase the number of cancer researchers in South Texas as well as promote the importance of it to students.

“It is important to improve research facilities for cancer and biomedical researchers in the RGV,” Banik said. “Students should be introduced to cancer research at an early stage in their career.”

As for Escamilla, she continues battling cancer. Despite her accomplishments in treatment, she feels that at the moment, she is more of a fighter than a survivor.

“I am a luchadora, not a ‘survivor,’” Escamilla said. “I have three years of treatment yet to go. ‘Survivor’ is too passive for me.”

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A new era of education

November 14th, 2013

According to the 2011 U.S. Census, most young people typically live in households with computers and access to the Internet. For example, people 18 to 34 years of age reported living in a home with a computer 82.8 percent of the time and accessing the Internet 82.0 percent of the time.

This trend holds true at UTPA, where technology is incorporated into education through The Center of Excellence in STEM Education. At the Center, students have access to software programs such as Visual Body 3D, GIMP and iPads with applications such as Planets, a 3D guide to the solar system and Khan Academy, which provides almost 3,000 educational videos in a range of subjects.

The University also accommodates students with computer labs, Bronc Notes, Bronc Emails, online classes and has been exploring Blackboard Collaborate, a platform designed to create visual classrooms and meeting spaces that open more possibilities to students.

Miguel Gonzalez, assistant director for the Center of Excellence, noted the importance of the University’s use of technology in education, which will only increase as time passes.

“Technology supports the way students learn. They don’t learn the way I learned, especially now with the use of smartphones and computer pads,” he said. “It makes for a big difference in terms of how students learn and how (teachers) are able to get (their) point across.”


Similar to Blackboard Collaborate, UTPA launched an online learning experience in 2007 called Second Life and currently has more than 100 students enrolled in different disciplines. The program is a 3D virtual environment that enhances the learning process by providing contact with individuals across the world through role-playing, simulation and exploration.

In this digital content, the student attends class through an avatar. The student sits with the avatars of fellow classmates as they are taught by the professor’s avatar, which lectures and incorporates visual content online.

Leticia Garza, who is taking the course Teaching Language Arts and Social Studies in the Elementary Classroom within Second Life, said she likes innovative aspects of the program, but gets frustrated with the system’s glitches.

“There are positive points to the program, but we’ve had times when it freezes  because…about 30 students are logged on all at the same time because we have to be,” the interdisciplinary studies major said. “Even though the course is challenging because it is online and can seem like more work on top of in-class work, the program is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”

Cristiana Villalobos, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, said she uses and encourages students to use the software Graphmatica, which provides an equation plotter with numerical and calculus features. She also teaches with Matlab, which is used for numerical computation and programming, in her Linear Optimization course. She said she is exploring how software programs can provide students with visual aids to help them comprehend the material.

“In mathematics, we try to incorporate software that is associated with mathematics or geography to help students better understand concepts,” Villalobos said. “The Matlab software is incorporated with the textbook and it is a powerful conceptual tool for students to conduct experiments and codes.”

Frequently looking for software programs to meet the needs of her students, Villalobos said challenging them to operate such programs efficiently will prove effective in the long run.

“We try to familiarize students in several technologies because programs, such as Matlab, are still used in the graduate program,” she said, “and students who are going into the industry use many of the same programs…that way students can benefit and have an edge on others.”


As of fall 2011, more than 6.7 million students enrolled in postsecondary education have taken an online course, according to a study by Babson Survey Research Group. Additionally, 77 percent rated the learning outcomes in online education equal or superior to face-to-face education.

According to Nick Taylor, a lecturer in the Department of Communication, online tools grant accessibility that is necessary for students who are in a time crunch, have problems commuting or whose priorities include personal and professional responsibilities.

“We see things like Blackboard, online learning, YouTube – areas where students can go when a professor is unavailable or a professor can direct them to and they can get tutoring or ideas,” Taylor said. “For example, a professor can put a lecture on YouTube or Blackboard and the students don’t have to say, ‘What did they say in class on Thursday?’ So that collaboration helps open up lines of understanding and communication.”

There is the perception that online students are less punctual in turning in assignments in comparison to ground students, but as an online teacher, a person has to be considerate toward the complications that come with technology, Taylor said.

“The technology is still losing students, where their assignments get lost, glitches in the system that have to be worked out,” he explained. “That may make some people perceive online students as not as capable or motivated as a student sitting in a classroom, but a motivated student is going to succeed.”

Additionally, Ruben A. Mazariegos, assistant chair in the Department of Physics and Geology, expressed how the online experience differs from student to student. Mazariegos has been teaching hybrid classes, a combination of traditional classroom teaching and an online learning environment, and full online courses, since 1999. The year he started teaching online courses was the same year the Center for Distance Learning, now known as the Center for Online Teaching and Technology, was founded by computer science professor Wendy L . Fowler.

During the first year, Mazariegos piloted the selected course, Principles of Physical Geography, then started teaching one hybrid course and one regular course simultaneously each year. After careful consideration and feedback from students, the transition to a fully-online course was implemented.

“It depends on the individual student. For some students it is hard to ask a question in the regular classroom setting, but this same student may find it very comfortable and non-intimidating to ask a question via an online method,” he said. “I taught face-to-face courses and I have seen that many students feel more confident within the online environment as they tend to ask questions more frequently, since the communication is just between the student and the instructor without the pressure of a regular classroom.”

For online students, the opportunities to connect fellow classmates and the professor are available, and innovative technology could further improve the relationship students and educators have with online learning tools, Mazariegos said.

“Online students also have the opportunity to share their questions with the instructor and the whole online class via the Bulletin Board on Blackboard, so other students also (benefit from) the response,” he added.


In a classroom, ideas and resources are shared that foster relationships between classmates and encourages active participation, said Sandra Amaro, whose main reason for choosing live instead of online classes is the lack of face-to-face communication.

“The main disadvantage for online classes is the interactions between students and professors,” Amaro, an English major, said. “I don’t prefer taking online classes over ground classes because I still do like to go to the classroom and listen to the lecture as well as interact with my classmates.”

According to The National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled in at least one distance education course increased between 2002 and 2006 from 1.1 million to 12.2 million. By  2014, the research firm Ambient Institute predicts that the number of students taking exclusively online classes will increase to 3.55 million and the number of students taking on-campus courses will drop to 5.14 million.

Michael Reed, a professor in the Department of English, agrees that online instruction is both non-personal and misused by students who gather answers and resources from the web to cheat. Reed has been operating a self-made website for more than 20 years that provides students with a syllabus and information pertinent to course work. However, he uses the computer in his classroom only when it seems appropriate.

“To me, the most serious issue (is that) online courses do not offer interaction between students and faculty in person,” Reed said. “I know for a fact that much of the work that is submitted online is not work done by the student receiving the grade. I have talked to various professors who have taught online courses and they know that the students are cheating, but there is no way to determine who is doing the writing on the other end.”

The opportunity for students to critique each other’s work, have healthy debates and find solutions with fellow classmates can be achieved in an in-class setting, Reed added.

“Class discussion of a poem is valuable to students because it gives them the opportunity to learn basic analysis of a text,” he said. “It gives them a chance to offer their own analysis and to have that analysis added to or corrected by other students and the teacher.”

Gonzalez agreed that there are disadvantages to using technology in education, but there are also advantages. The most important factor is what a student’s needs and preferences are, he said.

“There’s still some advantages to old ways, but it’s hard to not use technology to teach. From recording lectures to teaching online for certain courses…it’s pretty prevalent in this University,” he said. “There’s always new and better ways to teach and get our learning objectives out to the students.”

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Prescription for success

October 31st, 2013

Lydia Aguilera’s passion for the Cooperative Pharmacy Program was apparent in the nomination letter she wrote to Excelencia in Education, which ultimately led to the program winning a nationally acclaimed award earlier this month.

On Oct. 1 Aguilera, the director of the CPP, and UTPA President Robert Nelsen accepted an award in Washington, D.C. from Excelencia, a non-profit organization that gives awards to programs that have achieved excellence for Latino/a students. The prize of $5,000 will go to student pharmacy research for conferences, such as the American Society of Health Systems Pharmacists midyear meeting in Florida Dec. 9.

According to Aguilera, UTPA’s CPP was one of 165 programs that were official nominees for the award from a total of 22 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In 2011, state lawmakers slashed $5 billion in public school funding, and UTPA’s CPP was directly affected, making the survival of the program difficult. Aguilera said that local pharmacy companies like Saenz Pharmacy in McAllen helped support students in the program by donating funds to their research and conference trips. She also said this recent prize has been financially helpful in the wake of these budget cuts.

“We got slashed with an 80 percent budget cut. Who could survive that? But we did,” Aguilera said. “And two years later we (won) the top award in the country for the example of excellence in Latino education, how great is that?”

Aguilera stated that one of the main goals of the program is to produce graduates that will stay in their community and aid in its cultural needs. Of the 75 graduates from this program, more than 80 percent have stayed in the Rio Grande Valley to pursue careers.

“The goal of the program is to create opportunity and also to educate and train pharmacists that understand the language and the culture (in the Rio Grande Valley),” said the program director. “So you may walk into a pharmacy and see your neighbor (working) there.”

The program was created in 2001 to address a shortage of pharmacists in South Texas. Teaming up with the University of Texas System has made it possible for these students to earn doctoral degrees in pharmaceuticals both at UTPA and the University of Texas at Austin.

Students pursuing a doctorate degree in pharmaceuticals complete the first two years at UTPA where they study their basic courses. Next, students transfer to UT-Austin to complete the next two years of the program where they study pharmaceutical sciences and disease management. Once complete, CPP members return to UTPA to finish the last two years of the program, which includes patient care and hands-on rotations at local pharmacies.
This year, 16 CPP students submitted four abstracts, scientific articles that document research, and all were accepted to be presented at the midyear meeting in December. Aguilera said the money awarded to the program by Excelencia in Education will directly fund the students airfare to Florida for the meeting.

“I’m so proud of the award because it’s confirmation that the faculty is doing the right thing and we are in the right place,” Aguilera said.

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Up, up and away

October 31st, 2013

As the hot Texas sun beams down inside a small McAllen garage, computer and electrical engineering students work diligently on their benches with electronic sensors and other electrical components. Meanwhile, Roger Pecina and fellow mechanical engineering students work with their 3D printing and computer models of their personal drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle.

Pecina, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, along with his collaborative team of five electrical, mechanical and computer engineering students, have been running a startup company, unofficially named Eve Unmanned Vehicles, out of Pecina’s garage. With the aspirations of turning this project into a company, they plan on selling personal drones that will one day fly, drive and obey the needs of their owners.

The team has already created a prototype of an unmanned polymobile vehicle, calling it Pegasus, alluding to the mythological creature that can both fly and walk on the ground. The drone, which will be about the size of a small microwave oven, will be able to switch between Aero Mode and Geo Mode. Aero Mode is what allows the vehicle to fly, while Geo Mode controls the driving feature.

While Aero Mode is completely electronic with no mechanical parts, the transition system that allows it to switch between both modes is gear-driven. Although mechanical components are currently part of the prototype, Pecina and his team are hoping to make the switch to a completely electronic design for the second model.

The project started when Pecina was introduced to a quadcopter, a machine that flies using four rotors.

“I thought it was a nifty little gadget,” Pecina said. “It sounds kind of crazy, but I really wanted to see if there was a way that you could use this technology to somehow interface it with a flying car.”

Because engineering students are required to participate in a senior design project before graduation, Pecina saw his opportunity and seized it. After putting his team together and speaking with John Sargent, a professor in the College of Business Administration, Pecina and his team decided to pursue the personal drone.

“I really think within the next 10 years that people are going to have their own personal drones,” Pecina explained. “You look at every technology that’s been successful, like the automobile and the phone, and they’ve all made life easier for people.”

Pecina and his team have already won grants from the UTPA Business Plan Competition and McAllen Innovators Competition. The biggest supporters of the project, however, have come from the UTPA staff, according to Pecina.

“Everyone gives me so much help,” he said. “Here all the faculty, like Dr. (Robert) Jones, Dr. (Robert) Freeman, the heads of the departments, the dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. Everyone helps out so much, especially Dr. Sargent at the business school, who has been our foundation.”

Following suit with the history of most innovation, drones are currently used mostly for military purposes, according to an article by Rolling Stone. However, drones are beginning to make their transition from military weapons to domestic tools. According to an article published by USA Today, the Federal Aviation Administration has begun developing regulations in regard to piracy and safety concerns that would allow for companies in the commercial drone industry to sell these products to bigger markets by 2015.

Additionally, drones are being used for cinematography purposes by amateur film-makers under strict regulations, as Hollywood awaits for these updated FAA regulations to be made, according to an October article by Rolling Stone.

However, Pecina’s goals aren’t limited to bringing personal drones to the world. He hopes to bring prestige and recognition to UTPA by recruiting fellow students to follow suit in his risk-taking.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for the new university to create a new identity,” Pecina said. “When you think of schools like Stanford (University) where the colleges of business and engineering are basically married to each other…you have companies like Google, Instagram, Yahoo, YouTube (and) Cisco starting from there. I really think that we have the opportunity to do that here, but you just have to get people hungry.”

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Supernovae talk

October 24th, 2013

The planets and mankind started with a bang, according to Alex Filippenko, an astrophysicist and astronomy professor from the University of California at Berkeley, who visited UTPA Oct. 15.

Filippenko, who has been teaching at Berkeley for 27 years, paid his first visit to the Rio Grande Valley and the University to speak to students about different fields of work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a part of the STEM Speakers Series. His inspiration for spreading this message of innovation and science is rooted in his own experiences and interest in astrophysics.

“I hope to give (students) some idea of how much fun I’ve had exploring science and getting involved in research and education. So, my hope is that this will inspire them to pursue such fields,” Filippenko explained. “The point is that there’s a lot of interesting science and technology, and (STEM) studies lead to innovation, which could improve all of our lives.”

Another goal Filippenko said he wants to accomplish is to get the younger population involved with STEM careers so the world, and the youths themselves, may prosper in the future.

According to a 2010 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, the amount of STEM graduates will have to increase between 20 to 30 percent by 2016 to meet the projected growth of the U.S. economy.

“Students who pursue these kinds of fields are not only doing something exciting, but they’re much more employable than the typical student who does not go into these lines of work,” the visiting speaker explained. “I’m not saying other fields are less interesting, but you become immediately more employable if you pursue STEM fields and learn your stuff well.”

Overall, STEM employment grew three times more than non-STEM employment over the last 12 years and is expected to grow twice as fast by 2018, according to the ITIF’s report.

Being familiar with Texas and some of its educational programs, such as STEM, Filippenko said he appreciates how state universities have embraced those fields, especially after being invited to speak at other Texas institutions in the spring, including Palo Alto College in San Antonio.

“I’m quite pleased to see that Texas, as a state, has placed such great emphasis on these fields. It’s fantastic. It’s a very forward-looking state in that regard,” he said. “It’s wonderful having a lot of young people interested in this kind of stuff.”

According to UC Berkeley’s astronomy department website, Filippenko has had his accomplishments documented in over 700 research papers. Some of his work in astronomy involves determining the nature of different supernovae and the workings of the universe.

About 15 years before he began his trips to the Lone Star State’s colleges, Filippenko was part of two research teams that discovered the accelerating expansion of the universe, which researchers believe was driven by dark energy, a hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space. In 2011, the leaders of the teams were honored with a Nobel Prize in physics.

Because prizes in science can only be awarded to three members of a group and not the whole group or organization, the researchers who led the team received the honor. Although he did not receive the prize himself, Filippenko said he feels satisfied because of all the work he put into researching with colleagues.

“My jaw dropped when we found the results and it was really bizarre. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be involved so closely in research that alters our view of the universe in such a fundamental way,” he said. “So it was definitely a great thrill. And prizes or no prizes, what scientists are driven by is the thrill of scientific discovery, of doing something that improves our understanding of the universe or uncovers something we did not know.”

The astrophysicist believes that several areas of science, such as astronomy, excite kids and young adults, which reels them into STEM careers that can benefit them and society. His aim was to hook UTPA students during his time at the University.

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Defying gravity

October 17th, 2013

As a handful of elementary school children excitedly picked up the solid yet gooey substance, many gasped in wonder when it immediately transformed to liquid and slid through their fingers.

The strange substance that displays properties of both solids and liquids is called a non-newtonian fluid and is made from cornstarch and water. This experiment, along with many others, were displayed at the Hispanic, Engineering, Science and Technology Week’s NASA and SpaceX Reception Oct. 10.

The two-hour long event was a chance for parents, students, and sponsors to get a sneak peek at the NASA and SpaceX exhibits displayed at this year’s 12th annual HESTEC, which wrapped up Oct. 12. Not only were exhibits from NASA and SpaceX shown, but hands-on experiments created by UTPA students were displayed as well. These experiments, such as the non-newtonian fluid displayed by Kareem Wahid, aimed to showcase the effortlessness of science.

“The main thing I want people to take away is the simplicity of science,” said Wahid, a physics major. “You can get simple materials found in your house and you can explore crazy phenomenon that you never anticipated.”

Along with the hands-on activities UTPA students provided, NASA and SpaceX didn’t fall short with their exhibits either. Attractions such as a replica of a Mars land rover and a Wii game simulating space travel were two of the six exhibits. Dahlia Guerra, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, witnessed this firsthand.

“It’s going to be drawing thousands of people on Saturday, so I thought this would be a better day to come,” said Guerra, referring to Community Day, the annual capper of the weeklong event. “(The kids) were really intrigued with all the different exhibits like the land rover, and it’s really organized, it has a lot of activities for the children, very interesting information.”

Allison Castillo, a staff member in the Department of Educational Psychology, shared the same enthusiasm for HESTEC’s impact on the community as she attended the event with her family.

“It’s really an educational experience for the kids to come out and be able to work hands on with the different activities that they provide for them,” Castillo said. “It’s important because the kids are our future (and) future Broncs too. It’s very informative and fun.”

HESTEC may not be the last trip SpaceX makes to the Rio Grande Valley. According to The Monitor and The Brownsville Herald, owners of the company are looking to build a new aerospace facility at a site outside of Brownsville.

Seeing this as an opportunity to promote student learning, The University of Texas System suggested creating a program that would partner SpaceX with the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy, according to a letter written in August by UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

While the result of these preliminary plans remains to be seen, HESTEC continues to provide exposure of the sciences to the people of the RGV.

“HESTEC has been really great, and I know it makes such a huge impact on the community,” Guerra said. “All of the activities here on campus are important to all of us. Just because it’s in the sciences doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be interested.”

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More than 20,000 students

October 10th, 2013

Preliminary numbers for total enrollment at UTPA indicate that the University has reached more than 20,000 students, the highest number in 86 years, dating back to when the institution first opened as Edinburg College in 1927. The headcount for 2013 will not be finalized until the last week of October.

According to Magdalena Hinojosa, senior associate vice president for enrollment services, there are several factors that contributed to the 2.5 percent increase over the past year.

“There are three things that attract students to an institution: what programs do you offer, where are you located and how much does it cost,” Hinojosa said. “Basically the programs that we have to offer are very attractive. We have the STEM programs and different business programs that students look at.”


From 2012 to 2013, enrollment in engineering and computer science programs increased by 11.14 percent and for science and mathematics the rise was 8.85 percent.

“Part of going to college is graduating with a degree that is going to get you a job,” Hinojosa said. “There’s an interest in STEM fields…it’s (currently) a focus throughout the country.”

According to a survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers published in January 2013, engineering dominates the list of college degrees that pay the highest salaries. Of the 10 majors with the highest starting salaries, six are in a branch of engineering.

In addition to programs, Hinojosa also said distance is a factor students take into consideration. In a relatively isolated area, UTPA is the dominant   institution.

“Proximity is another attraction, and that’s true for any institution,” she said. “Being able to travel to a short distance is important (to students).”

When it comes to cost, UTPA has the lowest net tuition price in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The net tuition price is the total annual cost after financial aid and grants are taken into    account. Total cost includes fees, tuition, books, supplies and    living expenses.

“The University has been definitely growing every year for the last several years,” Hinojosa said. “The expectations are that we will definitely increase (enrollment) every year.”

“The expectations are that we will definitely increase (enrollment) every year.”


While attracting students is one goal, keeping them at the University is another priority, Hinojosa commented.

“We are focusing on retention and we have a projection so that we can prepare the right courses for our future students,” Hinojosa said. “Our goal is not just to enroll students, but also help them graduate.”

In 2012, the first-year retention rate – the percentage of   students who began their studies in fall 2011 and returned in fall 2012 – was 75.4 percent, according to the UTPA Fact Book. In addition, 17.6 percent of students who began their studies in fall 2006 graduated by fall 2010. This is below the average rate for 4-year Texas public colleges, which was 24.4 percent for the class of 2010, according to the College Completion.


In addition to increased enrollment at the undergraduate level, certain graduate programs have also seen an influx.

For example, enrollment in master’s programs in business administration increased by 49 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Cynthia Brown, vice provost for graduate studies, said this increase can be attributed to the accelerated master’s of business administration program that began in October 2012. The program, which took a year to develop, allows a student to complete his or her MBA degree within one calendar year.

“We’re bringing in students who do their MBA online, in a very accelerated format,” Brown said. “We’re looking for better ways to reach the graduate students, whether that be in an accelerated online (format) or in a (regular) online format.”

But not all graduate programs saw an enrollment increase. Overall, doctoral programs at UTPA decreased by more than 6 percent.

“The reason for the decrease in the doctoral enrollment…is they had an abnormally large number graduate last year,” she said. “That’s a good reason to have the numbers down a bit.”

However, overall enrollment at the University is still expected to increase by August 2015, when the merger between UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville officially begins. With a projected enrollment of 28,000 students, this new  institution will be the second largest Hispanic-serving institution in the United States.

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HESTEC returns

October 3rd, 2013

Andrew Lugo’s post-college life was affected by Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology week in 2004. It was at this annual event that Lugo, now a UTPA alumnus, was recruited by Raytheon Company, an American defense contractor and industrial corporation.

“The department head (of electrical engineering) introduced me to the representative from Raytheon during HESTEC week,” said Lugo, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in May 2005. “He was interested in interviewing me.”

Lugo has been with Raytheon ever since. According to Naxi Lopez, media coordinator for HESTEC, increasing interest and success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields is one of the goals of HESTEC.

“In 2000 (before the start of HESTEC), there were 195 undergraduate degrees in STEM issued at UTPA,” Lopez said. “And last year there were 416 degrees. STEM degrees have increased more than two-fold since the start of HESTEC.”

Lopez said this trend isn’t solely because of HESTEC, but is definitely a contributing factor.

“It has impacted the lives of many people,” she said.

While possible employment for college students is one advantage of HESTEC, the younger generation can benefit as well, according to Lugo.

“Getting the kids involved is a big deal,” he said. “HESTEC does that, it helps kids get interested in math and science, it’s a really good thing. Kids too often get deterred from pursuing careers in math and science because it’s too hard.”

According to Junior Achievement USA and the ING U.S. Foundation, interest in STEM is declining among teenagers. In a survey of 1,025 teenagers conducted by the two foundations, 46 percent ranked STEM and medical-related fields as their top choice in regards to career plans; this is a 15 percent decline from the 2012 survey, when 61 percent of students considered STEM their top choice.

“There’s going to be a huge shortage of engineers (in the future),” Lugo said. “There’s just not enough kids interested in (STEM) careers.”

Lugo’s concern is not without merit. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy, there will be a shortfall of 230,000 qualified advanced-degree STEM workers by 2018.

HESTEC, hopefully, can reverse this trend, UTPA’s Lopez said.

The annual event commences Oct. 7 and will continue through Oct. 12. A full list of events can be found on the HESTEC website.

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Reaching out

September 26th, 2013

A teacher at Colegio Juan Flores, a junior high school in Santo Domingo, Costa Rica, beamed with pride and joy at the gift that was just bestowed upon her – a first aid kit. Jose Alberto Villegas, a senior at UTPA, tried not to get emotional, but when he saw the teacher’s expression of elation at such a simple gesture, he finally felt the full impact of what he and his student organization were doing.

“She was so happy when we gave them a basic first aid kit because they didn’t even have one,” he said. “I got a little emotional at that point, but I didn’t want to let it show.”

With the celebration of World Gratitude Day Sept. 21, Jose Alberto Villegas, a 23-year-old pre-med biology and general studies double major, said he has much to be thankful for after traveling to Costa Rica Aug. 16-23 with four other members of the Student Association of Medical Spanish. His father, Dr. Jose Joaquin Villegas, acted as chaperone because the group’s faculty adviser, Glenn Martinez, was unavailable to make the trip.

According to the World Factbook by the Central Intelligence Agency, Costa Rica’s gross domestic product per capita, a measure of the total output of the country divided  by the population, is $11,900. GDP is one of the primary indicators of a country’s economic performance. While the GDP of Costa Rica ranks at 102 of 229 countries, poverty has remained at 20-25 percent for nearly 20 years. Members of the UTPA medical Spanish organization hoped to ease this burden by visiting underprivileged areas of the country.

The group went to three schools around the country and handed out first aid kits, toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss, all of which were donated or bought with money from club fundraising efforts. Members also handed out a variety of UTPA promotional materials: T-shirts, pens, pencils, school bags and sunglasses, all of which were donated by the University.

“What we did was split into three groups of two each and we gave a presentation to each school,” Jose Alberto Villegas said. “The first group talked about the University and their experiences studying there. The second group gave a presentation about dental  hygiene and tips on proper nutrition and exercise, and the third presentation was about CPR and first aid.”

Discussing something so fatal was difficult to make interesting though, he said.

“I was part of the third group and my presentation was pretty depressing,” he said. “I was talking about the dangers of choking and I didn’t know how to make the presentation a little more exciting.”

The journey to their latest trip wasn’t as simple as forming an organization and boarding a plane. The group had to prove themselves to the University before they were allowed to become an official student organization in 2011.

“When we started the club, it was just a couple of medical Spanish students who had an idea of breaking down language barriers in medicine,” he said. “We then had to get involved in the University, so we’ve hosted juguetones (charity toy drives) and we’ve done active translation during the Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology Week events. We’re getting paid for that now so it makes it a little easier to do.”

Currently the club stands at about 50 paying members, but only 12 were invited to the trip to Costa Rica. The club offers a point reward system for participating in events and the member with the most points gets his or her trip paid for by the organization. Because they only volunteered locally, Jose Alberto Villegas thought to take their giving internationally, focusing on Caribbean, Spanish-speaking areas, countries offering proximity to the home base of Edinburg in case of an emergency.

Traveling to these countries also let members plan low-cost trips to fit within the operating budget. They chose tropical areas that are close to the Atlantic Ocean and are affected by strong storms and hurricanes, which led them to add presentations on disaster relief for the most recent trip.

“Our first trip abroad was to Puerto Rico which was Aug. 22-27, 2011. I didn’t get to go to that trip because I was still trying to fix my residency status,” Jose Alberto Villegas said. “I lost about a year of school because of that.”

Born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Jose Alberto Villegas has been living in the United States since 2001, but didn’t have the chance to travel outside the country until he became a legal resident in time for the SAMS trip to the Dominican Republic in August 2012. The trip to Puerto Rico in 2011 was marred by Hurricane Irene, however, and the group had to cut the venture short and leave behind all their supplies.
He said their most recent voyage was even better than the previous two because his father came along.

“My dad is a retired doctor in Reynosa, but now he runs his own clinic, and it was really helpful to have him along because he presented alongside us,” he said. “Since we’re not doctors, we don’t volunteer medical services and only talk about preventative care, but he had the years of medical experience and took questions from the older kids in the high school we went to. With his experience, he was able to fill in the gaps in knowledge that we didn’t know.”

Jose Alberto Villegas finished his run, however, after almost three years of leading the club. He stepped down as the group’s president and plans to finish his degree and graduate in May.

“I’m going to focus now on school; that year off made me waste time,” he said. “Now the group’s president is Minerva Limas and I act as an unofficial adviser (for the group). I’m going to take it easy and just keep studying.”

He plans on attending medical school and becoming a doctor, like his father.

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