Prefreshman Engineering Program

Getting Prepped

Pre freshman Engineering Program readies students for careers in STEM fields

TEAM WORK PREP grad Marisa Martinez Palmer now manages a team of six at San Antonio Water System where she enjoys problem solving and opportunities for teamwork.

Sometimes all it takes is a little push in the right direction for a bright student to find the right path. The Prefreshman Engineering Program, or PREP, offered at UTSA is designed to be that push, and the path leads to careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, known as STEM fields. PREP motivates and prepares middle and high school students for success in one of these STEM career fields during four intensive summer sessions. PREP especially encourages minority students and women, who traditionally have been underrepresented in STEM professions.

Adding to the number of PREP success stories are two native San Antonio women who discovered their passion for engineering after participating in the program.

Marisa Martinez Palmer (left) and Jessica Perez (right)

Marisa Martinez Palmer, who is now a supervising engineer at San Antonio Water System, found that being exposed to college-level courses and becoming familiar with a college campus during her middle school years gave her a new perspective.

"It planted a seed, and I realized: I can go to college," said Palmer, who became valedictorian of her graduating class at Lanier High School in downtown San Antonio. "Seeing that you were able to do the work was eye-opening." She became the first in her family to attend college and the only one of her siblings to earn a college degree. She was also the only one to attend PREP.

Already a strong student, Palmer was encouraged to apply to the program in sixth grade because of her advanced math skills. During her summers at PREP, she honed that ability and developed an interest in science and engineering.

"I listened to accomplished and inspirational speakers in engineering and science from our community; I took college preparatory practice exams, visited other college campuses, and took field trips to places like NASA," she said.

At SAWS, Palmer is able to solve real-world problems with her engineering background. "The work I do now fascinates me," she said. "I know what it takes to treat wastewater. Lots of people take it for granted."

Though she loved the problem-solving challenges, she found the team-building skills to be the most valuable asset she gained in PREP. From working together on projects to collaborating on homework assignments, students had frequent opportunities to learn from others in the program.

"It's critical for engineers," said Palmer, who leads a team of six. "Many like to work by themselves, and it's important to learn to work in groups."

Echoing that sentiment is another PREP grad, Jessica Perez, who is working toward her doctorate in biological and chemical engineering at Northwestern University after earning a bachelor's in biological engineering at MIT. Though working in groups sometimes led to taking on much of the responsibility alone, Perez found the experience important to developing leadership skills. Now in graduate school, she regularly puts those teamwork skills to good use while collecting research with other students.

As a Sul Ross Middle School student, Perez told her father about PREP after learning about it from her teachers. He never completed a college degree, but wanted his daughter to attend college one day, so he encouraged her to apply for the program.

Already interested in biology, Perez was exposed to more in-depth science study, which helped her develop her talents. The hands-on experiences, such as building a miniature bridge in an engineering competition, were especially exciting for her, helping her realize her enthusiasm for that field.

"I felt like I could do a lot more," Perez said. "You got to see things before you took [those classes] in school. It gave me an advantage and potentially helped me get better grades."

She had always enjoyed research and study, and PREP introduced her to like-minded students. "I met people like me," she said. "They are really intense and curious about learning."

In fact, Perez and some of her PREP classmates decided to create a robotic suit and begin their own company in their spare time outside of courses. Though their entrepreneurial plans never came to fruition, Perez' sense of belonging with the other students was strong. Not only did she feel like she was part of something special, she also had discovered how to do research on her own, beyond the classroom.

"PREP helps you find where you fit into the science world," Perez said.

Palmer agreed. "It prepared me academically and allowed me to gain the confidence and perseverance to enter the college environment and succeed," she said. "PREP was a life changing experience for me."