Some time ago, a scientist friend of mine who was visiting the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), observed that El Paso is like an island. It is physically several hundred miles away from most major cities and culturally well separated from mainstream American culture. These characteristics make our region special and impose some constraints on the mentoring we provide to our science students.
Two pronounced characteristics of our students are their ethnicity--86% of the UTEP population is of Mexican-American origin--and their lack of exposure to higher education--most are the first in their families to attend a university. A third common feature is that because there are hardly any companies in the area that hire scientists, these students have had very limited exposure to science. For instance, during their precollege years only a few have the opportunity to visit research centers or even UTEP. Thus, with no easy connection to science or to the world of scientists, few students are inclined to pursue science as a career. And to complicate matters more, those who do are usually lured away by big institutions with attractive scholarship packages.
Under these circumstances, attracting and retaining students in science becomes a multidimensional problem. First, recruitment has to involve educating middle and high school students--and their teachers--about the role of a scientist in today's world. They need to be made aware of the basics, such as the average salaries of scientists and job opportunities in industry, government, and the military. In addition, it is also necessary for students to develop basic math and science skills. This requires direct university faculty members' intervention in the educational system for grades 7 through 12 (some say K through 12). Currently, we have been doing this through work with preservice teaching (that is, student teaching), and directly with in-service workshops.
Once at the university, students must be nurtured and trained to do research. In this respect, UTEP has started several innovative programs. The NSF-sponsored program Model Institution for Excellence (MIE) has provided funds to develop several "nurturing" centers with tutors and computers for science and engineering majors. Because of MIE, the core curriculum now includes a new course for first-year students, which has been used to group students in similar areas and expose them to the current technologies and discoveries in the world of science. More important, perhaps, are the research assistantships that hundreds of university juniors and seniors have received during the 7 years this program has existed. MIE's success prompted the UTEP administration to elevate the entering-students program to the rank of a university college.
Five undergraduate students are currently helping me with several research projects, three of them funded by MIE. My personal style of mentoring is based on the philosophy of Howard Adams and the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science ( GEM): A research assistant, whether graduate or undergraduate, is a colleague and should be treated as such. My students participate in writing proposals, setting up experimental and computational equipment, acquiring and analyzing data, and preparing manuscripts and presentations. After a short time, they are able to do simple and complicated tasks, such as picking up the phone and ordering a piece of equipment, or preparing a 15-minute presentation for a regional meeting. This approach gives them a clear and thorough view of what it means to be a research professor. Under this mode of operation, students understand the need for good writing skills; a backgound in math, computers, and science; and the ability to work in teams. With this motivation, they are more likely to succeed in their coursework.
An additional ingredient needed on the border is a connection with Mexico and its culture. Because many of our students come from Mexico, we need to make the effort to connect them to Mexican research institutions. We do this by sending them to summer schools and conferences in Mexico as often as possible. The unrestricted use of Spanish, the exposure to Mexican seminar speakers, and the introduction to the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP) also help create a more nurturing environment. In the years since I was an undergraduate, I have seen research education go from being an elitist activity catering to a selected few, to one attending to the masses. Our mentoring techniques should evolve so we can produce the quantity and quality of scientists needed by today's complex society.
Professor Jorge A. Lopez is Chair and Shumaker Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Texas, El Paso. His current research efforts focus on nuclear theory. For further information, please contact Professor Lopez at email@example.com.