Randy Anaya has a quick smile and friendly demeanor. But in a lab where he is responsible for the safety of 30 young students, that disposition can give way to stern direction. Such was the case recently when Anaya led a Tech-E summer camp at The University of Texas at El Paso.
“Don’t burn your fingers,” the instructional technologist said using his “dad” voice as some elementary and middle school students used hot glue guns to attach wheels to their “Roomba-trons” in UTEP’s GAIA Lab on the second floor of the Undergraduate Learning Center.
The palm-sized project is similar to the popular autonomous vacuum cleaners. Anaya reminded a few other campers to don their safety goggles as they soldered battery packs and other electronic “brain” components at their workstations.
The exercise taught certain skills to include how to program a mini-computer.
UTEP’s Tech-E, short for Technology Exploration, started as a summer program in 2015 for young students from families of modest means throughout El Paso who could not afford other technology camps.
It has since grown into a multipronged effort with strands that range from cohorts that span an academic year to various summer mini-camps such as the one for the Tornillo and San Elizario school districts conducted June 17-20, 2019.
That camp was for students from migrant families who live transient lives based on where they can find agricultural work. A teacher said these families rarely traveled outside their communities and most do not even think about college for their children.
The goals of the weeklong camp were to introduce the students to aspects of science and engineering, hone their critical-thinking, problem-solving and communication skills, and make them more comfortable in a college setting.
This is the second year of the program for students from migrant families, but the first year to break into different career segments: innovator, maker, engineer, science/physics, and arts and math. It also is the first year that introduced an art and animation section.
Samantha Martinez, a ninth-grade student at San Elizario High School this fall, was at her second Tech-E summer camp and said she loved the project-based experience. Initially, she wanted to teach as a career, but now she wants to teach technology.
“I like robotics,” she said as her cohort was about to go on a lunch break. “I think it’s fun. I’m excited to be part of it. I want to learn more.”
Participants worked in teams and brought their different learned experiences to their final projects that they modified throughout the week. UTEP staff members to include Anaya and student mentor volunteers such as Connie Ramirez, a sophomore computer science major, guided them. The mentor-to-student ratio in that cohort was one to two compared with other camps where it is about one to 15.
Ramirez said she attended UTEP summer technology camps since she was in middle school, and wanted to be a Tech-E volunteer because she felt a kinship with the younger students.
The first-generation college student said her single mother, a Mexican immigrant who worked two jobs to make ends meet, raised her family in a modest Central El Paso home.
The UTEP student said she always had been interested in how things worked, so she often tried to fix things around the house such as her bicycle, household electronics and the family’s dryer. The Tech-E mentor said she initially was intimidated to study technology at UTEP, but her desire to learn superseded her fears.
“Tech-E helped me to discover myself,” Ramirez said. “Engineering is something I wanted to do.”
Her natural curiosity and the knowledge she attained through UTEP camps drove her to join her high school robotics team, which she eventually led and joined on competitions throughout Texas and as far as Missouri. That led to her selection to a 2018 summer program at White Sands Missile Range, where the El Paso native built rockets and learned about cyber security, land navigation, electronic warfare and genetically modified foods.
When she started her higher education studies at UTEP in fall 2018, she bumped into Anaya, the Tech-E supervisor, who encouraged her to apply for a Tech-E staff position. She said she has enjoyed her work with the young students, especially to build their self-confidence and to encourage them to attend college.
“I was once in their shoes,” she said. “I can relate to these kids. I want them to know that someone is looking out for them.”
Mike Pitcher, director of Academic Technologies and father of UTEP’s Tech-E program, said that UTEP students often share stories of overcoming adversity with the campers who face numerous struggles of their own.
“Sometimes (campers) face so many challenges that they lose confidence in their abilities to face those challenges,” Pitcher said. “College isn’t even on their radar. That’s why it’s important for them to come to the University and work with our students. They come to our campus and realize that no one walks on water. This experience builds their confidence in what they know about technology and about themselves. It changes their mindset to where they reframe their challenges.”
Myriam Sanchez, a teacher at Ann M. Garcia-Enriquez Middle School in the San Elizario Independent School District, was the district’s leader at the June summer camp. Sanchez, who earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from UTEP in 1993, said she liked the Tech-E concept.
“I always was interested in technology,” said Sanchez, who has taught for 26 years. “I liked the building, the creating.”
Sanchez said her peers notice the difference in the Tech- E participants beyond the technology. She said the camaraderie built with the UTEP mentors makes their students more confident that they will attend college someday.
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications