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El Paso Herald-Post: UTEP: Project ACE opens STEM, Biomed paths for Hispanics

by: Daniel Perez

Growing up in Sunland Park, New Mexico, David Zubia was interested in all things mechanical. He was attentive and asked questions of family and neighbors as they worked on their projects. His curiosity led to challenges and accomplishments.

In middle school, Zubia parlayed his interest in computers and high-fidelity sound into a 10-speed bicycle with a working car stereo complete with cassette player powered by eight D batteries. He also built the rack to hold it. When he was 14, he bought a junked car for $200 and rigged his own hoist with railroad ties and a car jack to remove the engine, which he refurbished while a freshman at Gadsden High School (GHS) in Anthony, New Mexico.

“I loved to work with my hands,” said Zubia, Ph.D., professor of electrical and computer engineering at The University of Texas at El Paso. “I could imagine things and create what was in my mind.”

Today, Zubia operates a $5 million University lab where he teaches and researches ways to enhance semi-conductor manufacturing on a nano-scale, which is approximately 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. This summer, the award-winning educator and researcher got involved in a program created to engage and encourage the next generation of Hispanic scientists and researchers.

That program, Project ACE – Action for Equity: A BUILDing Scholars pipeline, is a five-year, $1.35 million effort funded with a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Science Education Partnership Award. BUILDing Scholars is an NIH-funded research-intensive training opportunity meant to diversify future generations of biomedical investigators. Its name is an acronym for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars.

Project ACE’s goal is to increase the numbers of Hispanic students and English Language Learners (ELLs) who attend high schools in economically disadvantaged communities and who are prepared and motivated to pursue undergraduate degrees in engineering as well as biomedical and behavioral sciences.

During its first summer, Project ACE, which launched in fall 2020, teamed five science teachers from Gadsden, Del Valle and Canutillo high schools with five UTEP science or engineering professors and members of their labs for five-week summer research projects. It also included a series of developmental workshops. The teachers will use their data to create lesson plans that they will incorporate into their curriculum for the 2021-22 school year. They also will send those plans to the University of Colorado Boulder’s Teach Engineering program for consideration for national distribution.

In Zubia’s case, he proposed tests on his patented “personal lab” prototype, a hand-made circuit board 2-feet long, 1-foot wide and about a half-inch deep. Colorful wires crisscross the board that he created to test circuits and charge capacitors, which store energy. ACE organizers teamed him up with Lisa Roth, a veteran GHS science teacher who has taught physics, chemistry and biology. Her job was to build her own personal lab under the guidance of Zubia and his lab members.

Roth, a Las Cruces resident, conducted most of her project virtually. Regardless, she said the things she learned and the professional connections she made through this program will benefit her, her GHS science peers and her students for years to come.

“Our students deserve every opportunity they can get, and if I can open opportunities for our students, then I will do anything to help them,” Roth said. “They have so much potential, but their opportunities are limited.”

Project ACE leaders plan to expand the program next summer to involve six high school teachers as well as students from the participating high schools, especially those interested in biomedicine, to participate in hands-on research at UTEP. Roth said her experience this summer would allow her to advocate for the program and to advise any student who wants to participate.

Osvaldo Morera, Ph.D., professor of psychology and the lead principal investigator (PI) on Project ACE, said his team is pleased with its initial steps that included multiple tiers of mentors, research-focused curriculum and the infusion of resources to enhance science labs at each participating high school.

The project’s other PIs are Josefina V. Tinajero, Ed.D., professor of teacher education, and Thomas Boland, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering.

“We hope the students at Gadsden, Canutillo and Del Valle benefit from this investment because, quite frankly, our high school students deserve it,” Morera said.

Zubia, the UTEP professor, said he got involved because he wanted to help students whose backgrounds mirrored his own. The fifth child of migrant field workers credited his mother for how she stressed the importance of education to her children. Each child earned a college degree and two of his siblings earned master’s degrees.

Zubia, who used a Pell Grant to pay for his undergraduate studies, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering from UTEP and his doctorate in the same subject from the University of New Mexico. He hoped his story, which included undergraduate research in hydrothermal electric power, might inspire others to dream big.

“I see my job as a teacher not as a job, but as a service to the community,” said Zubia in reference to the Paso del Norte region. “My job is to provide experiences to students to do research and transform their lives.”

Brent Boden, the GHS biomedical pathway teacher, said the school’s participation in Project ACE has sparked enthusiasm throughout the campus. He said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students who want to take science electives, and there is more interest from the engineering program to collaborate with the science faculty.

Additionally, school administrators approved a dedicated science lab, and discussed an additional science room for anatomy training that would include manikins and biomedical engineering equipment such as 3D printers. His principal also has given him permission to focus on the development of new curriculum for the 2022-23 academic year that better aligns with college research opportunities.

“In short, our program is gaining momentum, and it never would have been possible without the contributions and guidance of UTEP and Project ACE,” Boden said.

Read the full article here.