The Office of P-20 Initiatives

A Change of Environment

Future engineers build a bridge from community college to UTSA

MORE THAN SCENERY The group's tour guide points out indigenous vegetation, the river's built environment and other factors that could influence climate change.

On a breezy, overcast June morning at Confluence Park in San Antonio, a group of Alamo Colleges students gathered to complete their final research project as part of UTSA's engineering transfer program.

The Transfer Academy for Tomorrow's Engineers, or TATE, provides students a bridge from the city's community colleges to a four-year degree program at UTSA. The partnership was designed primarily to serve first-generation students and help ensure their academic success as engineering majors.

This summer marked the launch of the NASA-funded program, which has been in planning stages for several years. The first cohort of 21 students studied climate at the local level, researched a specific aspect of climate change, and for their presentations, applied their findings to the global level.

CAPTURED ON VIDEO One of the TATE participants uses an iPad to record his observations at Confluence Park for the program's final research project on environmental and climate change.

After two weeks of classroom teaching on the science of climate change, students and their professors visited Confluence Park to observe effects of civil engineering decisions at the convergence of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek. Armed with video cameras and iPads, students recorded evidence of environmental changes and discussed classroom lessons with their instructors and tour guide during the interactive session at the park.

"We know more about climate change in depth," said Valentin Tinajero, who is studying petroleum engineering. "We know more behind-the-scenes stuff, what the real cause was rather than just the human cause."

Civil engineering lecturer John Joseph, who taught the classroom portion of the program, briefed students on some of the environmental systems of waterways, such as how oxygen is dissolved naturally into river water by rocks. Throughout the tour, a guide brought attention to the area's indigenous vegetation, artistic details of the river's built environment, and other details of interest to future engineers.

Afterward, students learned to storyboard their videos and worked with other multimedia aspects of creating a webcast for a layman audience, said Joseph Kulhanek, director of the TATE program. Students eventually turned over their research projects to NASA.

"I really liked all the new technology we were introduced to," said Storm Graybill, a civil engineering student.

In addition to the hands-on component of the program, students were expected to hone their writing skills. Lindsay Ratcliffe, of UTSA's writing program, worked with students on their 25-page technical papers. She taught them the technical aspects of writing a report, called "scientific prose," she said. As part of daily assignments, Ratcliffe also asked students to write a journal prompted by a lecture or field excursion, stressing the importance of writing every day.

"It was important to the engineering professors that there was a writing professor involved," she said.

Learning to work effectively in groups, Ratcliffe said, was also an important component, one to which the students caught on successfully. "These students are motivated, sharp."

"This was an opportunity that I needed to take."

Rene Landero
mechanical engineering student

Because NASA funded the program, students were invited to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. In addition to receiving exclusive visitor access, students also learned about professional research opportunities for engineers, highlighting the practical side of completing their projects for TATE.

Next year, Kulhanek expects an additional 25 students from the Rio Grande Valley to participate, and he already has new ideas on how to streamline the program for its second year.

Despite its youth, TATE is already having an effect. During their video presentations, many students affirmed they want to continue in the engineering field. Some even decided they would like to study environmental engineering, rather than other concentrations they had intended to pursue.

One group's video project, titled Extended Forecast: 100 Years, used footage students captured at Confluence Park and focused on how environmental engineers work with nature rather than against it.

"It was out of my comfort zone," admitted Christopher Naville, who is focused on mechanical engineering, but he said it was interesting to study something new.

"I'm having a lot of fun," said Dora Hernandez, a civil engineering student recruited by UTSA for the program.

For some students, TATE was also a chance to change course. Rene Landero was working at a restaurant when he met Kulhanek, who was enthusiastic that he join the program. "This was an opportunity that I needed to take," the mechanical engineering student said.