DECEMBER 14, 2021 — For Joel Alejandro (Alex) Mejia, the mission of the Prefreshman Engineering Program (PREP) is personal. Coming from a low-income background, Mejia experienced firsthand the barriers that Latino students still face today when it comes to accessing an education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs.
“I believe that anyone who wants to become an engineer can do so—it’s just an issue of equity and representation,” Mejia said. “Engineering is not necessarily a very diverse field. We need more diverse perspectives in engineering, and we need to create spaces where students see themselves reflected in the curriculum.”
Mejia joined UTSA in August as an associate professor of engineering education under a joint initiative between the UTSA College of Education and Human Development (COEHD) and the UTSA Margie and Bill Klesse College of Engineering and Integrated Design. He was appointed the new director for PREP shortly after.
Bringing his research in K-12 STEM education, as well as his unique perspective as a first-generation college student, Mejia aspires to reinvigorate PREP into a more robust program, furthering UTSA’s vision to become a model for student success and embodying UTSA’s identity as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).
PREP is a summer enrichment program for middle and high school students. The program seeks to successfully prepare future college students by providing them with the opportunity to study STEM subjects in a college setting.
Mejia’s plans for PREP include increasing the program’s presence in local schools and school districts year-round, rather than just over the summer. He intends to explore more ways to support STEM teachers in local districts, from professional development to the development of curriculum. Mejia also wants to engage more UTSA graduate and undergraduate students as well as student organizations to conduct activities for middle and high school students. This will foster a stronger community for local students, allowing them to visualize themselves going to college and pursuing careers in STEM.
Earlier this year, UTSA invited an external reviewer from Stony Brook University to conduct a program review of PREP to suggest ways to improve and expand so more underrepresented students have clear pathways to pursue higher education and STEM fields. The reviewer spoke extensively with key stakeholders—including its founders and others with longtime associations with the program, as well as PREP programs across Texas and other states—to fully understand the program’s history and impact. With feedback from this review, Mejia will honor PREP’s impact on our community and region and continue in the footsteps of the program’s founder, Manuel Berriozábal, the longtime UTSA mathematics professor who was a champion of diversity for the university and a catalyst for generations of Hispanic students to enroll in college.
“I really want these students to see a pathway to engineering and higher education. My goal is to bring more of those experiences that are going to serve as a vehicle for them to aspire to careers in STEM,” Mejia said.
Breaking Ground in STEM Education
Upon its founding in 1979, PREP was a trailblazing initiative that encouraged students, particularly minority and female students, to pursue careers in STEM fields.
The first PREP summer program launched in San Antonio with 50 students. Over 40 years later, the program exists at more than 125 school districts across Texas as well as school districts in California, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Idaho. PREP has served over 50,000 Texas students alone during the past 40 years, with over 65% of participants identifying as Hispanic and 53% as female. Serving as a national model for providing high-quality, low-cost STEM education and college preparation, the PREP program received national recognition as a Bright Spot in Hispanic Education in 2015 by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
PREP and UTSA
In San Antonio, PREP provides a range of opportunities for local participants and partners to engage with UTSA, from research events on campus and showcases of UTSA’s STEM departments, faculty and research, to involvement in community organizations and events designed to engage with minority populations.
PREP’s home at UTSA allows participants to gain experience on a college campus, providing middle schoolers as early as 6th grade with the confidence to plan and achieve their future academic goals. The college insight that PREP offers, coupled with the program’s curriculum and variety of scholarship opportunities, is invaluable when PREP students prepare for college.
“Growing up in a low-income community, no one I knew was familiar with college or had that vision for the future,” said Rey Saldaña, president and CEO of Communities In Schools® (CIS™) and former San Antonio City Council Member. “PREP was my entry point to seeing college as a reality. A seed of possibility was planted from my first summer session, and that seed continued to grow because of PREP.”
The program is administered and supported by COEHD, which collaborates with other academic colleges for STEM education programs, including the Generating Education Excellence in Math and Science (GE2MS) initiative and UTeachSA in the UTSA College of Sciences. Both of these programs have propelled UTSA to become one of the greatest sources of high school STEM teachers in South Texas.
Additionally, the Klesse College offers a new graduate certificate in engineering education, and, together with COEHD, provides an ambassador program for outreach on the South Side of San Antonio, as well as the Dee Howard Foundation/UTSA Pre-K thru 12 Aviation and Aerospace Art Contest.
“The College of Education and Human Development is pleased to collaborate with our colleagues in the Colleges of Sciences and Engineering to leverage expertise in curriculum design and pedagogical best practices for PREP. Our efforts continue to support and strengthen a program Dr. Manuel Berriozábal created over 50 years ago for San Antonio students,” said COEHD Dean Mario Torres. “We also welcome the opportunity to collaborate on both research and community engagement, providing faculty and students opportunities to work with PREP.”
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