While higher education institutions diligently work to attract and graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) students, the supply of well-prepared job candidates simply can’t keep up with the explosive pace of technological innovations—and the fields critical to their success.
In response, Texas A&M University—a leader in the quest to prepare student engineers for the workforce—is doing its part by finding innovative ways to make engineering education accessible to a greater number and more diverse pool of qualified students.
Teaming up with longtime supporter Chevron, one of the university’s newest programs is the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academies. This endeavor partners the university with select Texas community colleges to reach qualified students who never dreamed they could attend Texas A&M. The result is a win-win: While students achieve a world-class engineering education, the engineering industry gains a larger pool of diverse job candidates who can help them solve STEM-related challenges well into the future.
Ask Glenn Weckerlin, Chevron’s director of enterprise programs and partnerships, about the energy corporation’s gifts to Texas A&M, and he’ll be quick to tell you that Chevron doesn’t donate money to colleges.
Philanthropists give gifts, explained Weckerlin. Chevron makes investments. “By partnering with engineering schools, we are investing in people,” he said. “We are creating opportunities for students who might not otherwise have access to a quality engineering education and, in doing so, are developing a richer pool of talent.”
With a growing shortage of engineers and a fervent need to include a broad range of perspectives when tackling modern engineering challenges, Weckerlin stressed the need for diversity in the employees Chevron hires.
“Engineers are problem-solvers,” he said. “The broader the solution set, the more alternatives you have in terms of solutions. Involving engineers of different races, genders, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures and even regions of the U.S. will result in a diversity of creative solutions.”
Throughout its long history with Texas A&M, Chevron has invested in the university to the tune of roughly $60 million. Though great in number, these individual investments have come primarily in the forms of more modest support, such as funding short-term projects, assisting student groups or establishing scholarships and professorships.
But in 2015, Chevron bucked this trend by providing a $5 million investment through the Texas A&M Foundation to create the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academies. The investment covers academy operations at five community colleges in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville and Houston through 2020.
Students in the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academies are co-enrolled at Texas A&M and at one of the five partner community colleges, which means they are Aggies before they ever step foot on the College Station campus. During their time at their community college, they not only take math, sciences and core curriculum classes, but also engineering courses from Texas A&M faculty members permanently assigned to that particular college.
By spending their first year or two of full-time undergraduate studies at one of the partner community colleges before transitioning to the College Station campus, engineering academy students save an average of $4,200 per semester.
“This partnership with community colleges allows us to reach qualified students who, by choice or by necessity, can’t begin college at Texas A&M,” explained Jackie Perez ’00, director of engineering academies and workforce development programs for the College of Engineering.
Ultimately, she said, the goal of the academies is not to simply produce a larger pool of candidates to fill engineering vacancies, but rather to meet the state’s shortage of engineers with a pool of candidates from all walks of life. To reach this goal, the academy program “expands access, increases affordability and supports completion rates,” Perez said.
And the plan is working.
From 2015 until the fall of 2018, some 468 students had enrolled in the College of Engineering through one of the five Texas A&M-Chevron Academies. Despite the challenges often faced by community college students, an average of 66 percent of the Texas A&M-Chevron academy students were still in the program after one year—a retention rate that Perez wants to see increase to 90 percent. Those who had transitioned to Texas A&M by the fall 2018 semester were maintaining a 3.0 grade point average—comparable to that achieved by engineering students on the main campus.
In terms of racial diversity, Perez and engineering academies associate director Dr. David De Sousa Jr. ’03, ’14 are particularly focused on increasing the number of black and Hispanic engineering students at Texas A&M.
Although black people make up roughly 12 percent of the total state population, black students represented only 2.5 percent of Texas A&M’s engineering student body in the spring 2019 semester. Even more glaring is the disparity between the state’s Hispanic population and the number of Hispanic students studying engineering at Texas A&M: While Hispanics are predicted to be the largest population group in Texas by 2022, in the spring 2019 semester, they represented only 20 percent of Texas A&M engineering students.
With these statistics in mind, Texas A&M and Chevron have strategically chosen community college partners that serve a large Hispanic student population. Leveraging the diversity at the community colleges not only diversifies the Texas A&M student engineering population—and, in turn, the future engineering candidate pool—in terms of race, but often in terms of culture and socioeconomic status, as well.
Between 2015 and 2018, the average percentages of black and Hispanic Texas A&M-Chevron academy participants were more than double that of the College of Engineering as a whole, at 5 percent and 44 percent, respectively. During that same time period, 39 percent of these students were Pell-eligible, indicating they were from lower socioeconomic households. In 2018 alone, some 37 percent of the Texas A&M-Chevron academy participants were first-generation college students.
De Sousa pointed out another important benefit of the program: Since the academy students are co-enrolled at Texas A&M and a community college, they minimize lost academic hours when they transition to the main campus, positioning them to graduate at the same time as their College of Engineering peers.
Another glaring imbalance in engineering and other STEM fields is the ratio of women to men. Texas A&M is among the many educational institutions and organizations trying to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers. But despite these efforts, the percentage of women in the university’s College of Engineering has increased only slightly over the last four years, from 20.73 percent of enrolled students in spring 2015 to 21.9 percent in spring 2019.
Through the engineering academies, Texas A&M and Chevron are hoping to make strides in remedying this gender disparity, as well.
Jenny Vasicek ’20 became an engineering academy student through a different route than many of her peers. The homeschool graduate from the Hill Country town of Dripping Springs applied to Texas A&M’s College of Engineering in 2016, but was not offered immediate admission. Instead, she was given the opportunity to be part of the university’s Program for System Admission, where she would begin her undergraduate career at another Texas A&M University System school, then later transfer to Texas A&M.
Knowing that Vasicek wanted to major in biomedical engineering, however, her Texas A&M admissions counselor proposed another option: enroll in the Texas A&M Engineering Academy at Blinn College-Brenham, where she could knock out her core courses and begin taking engineering courses from a Texas A&M faculty member, all while living close enough to College Station to take part in Aggie activities and utilize campus resources.
Vasicek agreed to the academy option.
Now a senior, Vasicek said her academy experience ended up being the right decision. She lived on the Brenham campus and became good friends with others in her academy cohort, where she was one of 10 women among 65 engineering students. Even after two years on the College Station campus, she still considers her fellow Blinn academy students among her closest friends.
“Since I was homeschooled, moving first to a smaller environment where I could make friends easier made the academy experience a really good fit,” she said. Vasicek added that the short distance between Brenham and College Station meant she could also attend everything from football games to tutoring sessions.
This summer, Vasicek is interning in Flower Mound with the global medical technology company Stryker, which manufactures orthopedic medical devices. She’ll be working in the pre-manufacturing, quality-control side of the business. She plans to graduate from Texas A&M in four years—rather than the average four-and-a-half years for engineering majors—and to pursue quality-control certification.
“I’m very happy with the path this has taken me, especially because of the small group of friends who transitioned from Blinn with me,” Vasicek said of her engineering academy experience. “I can’t think of anything I would change.”
The Texas A&M Engineering Academies program celebrated a milestone in May with the graduation of its first nine students, who began their degree program at either Blinn College-Brenham or at Houston Community College. The program has grown exponentially since that first year, now consisting of the five Texas A&M-Chevron academies, the Texas A&M Engineering Academy at Blinn College-Brenham, and the Texas A&M-Concho Engineering Academy at Midland College. Together, the engineering academies—combined with the local co-enrollment program between Texas A&M and Blinn College-Bryan—is positioned to enroll up to 1,000 students annually, Perez said.
While Chevron and Texas A&M will consider expanding the engineering academies to other areas of Texas down the road, Perez said that’s not the current focus. “We want to make sure we are strengthening and providing meaningful educational experiences for students in our existing partnerships,” she explained. “That’s more important at this point than adding new partners.”
In the meantime, Weckerlin said, preparing tomorrow’s engineering workforce relies on vigilantly paying attention to the diversity issue. Addressing diversity at the freshman level requires patience from potential employers like Chevron, he explained, since the engineering candidate pool won’t be impacted until those freshman eventually graduate.
“Incoming classes of undergraduate students must reflect what today’s society looks like,” he said. “If we don’t fix this issue right now, we’ll have yet another four- to six-year period to wait for the results of our investment.”