UTRGV summer camps inspiring next generation of engineers

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EDINBURG — Not only being at the forefront of railway safety, the UTRGV University Transportation Center for Railway Safety (UTCRS) has impacted countless students through its summer programs with some even coming back to work at the center.

Almost a decade in the railway safety summer camps offered by the center, it has opened up the world of engineering to over 8,500 students, according to the center’s director Constantine Tarawneh.

UTCRS operates as a consortium for other universities and leads the way in efforts to reduce railway-related fatalities and injuries.

With the center having five components regarding research, education, workforce development, technology transfer and community engagement, one key program is the annual summer camps.

Tarawneh said the camp had about 1,150 students last year for summer camps, about 280-300 per week and has continuously grown every year.

“No other university offers these camps for 1,000 students,” he said. ”When they bring in 50 or 75 students, they make a big deal out of it but we’re talking about thousands.”

Serving a different group of students from different districts and separated in grade levels, the summer camps run for four weeks with a closing ceremony.

Tarawneh said school districts usually have a formula to bring STEM students or students deemed at risk.

Offering the summer camps to students for $100 per student, usually paid by the district unless parents sign their child up individually, Tarawneh said through grants the center subsidizes the costs for the students.

“I tell schools and parents to take advantage of this because it can really change the trajectory of your child,” he said. “A lot of the times the kids, especially in the Valley, lack the confidence, right. They just think that ‘engineering is not for me, it’s too difficult.’ Especially because in a lot of their families they’re first-generation students, so you don’t have a father or an uncle or a mom that tells you ‘hey, you can do this.’”

Steel bearings are seen inside the University Transportation Center for Railway Safety classroom at UTRGV Monday, May 6, 2024 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

With the summer camps having curriculum based on grade level, some of the areas of focus are the basics of engineering design, Newton’s laws, teamwork, and the basics of programming.

Even having a workshop for teachers interested in applying the material in their classrooms, Tarawneh said the center allows teachers to borrow material at no cost.

Initially starting the summer camps on a three-year grant, he said the school districts and people in the community interested in the camps helped keep the program going along with a recent $10 million grant.

“If I have to go back and say what the best decision I made was, it was the summer camps,” Tarawneh said. “Because you’re really changing the lives of so many people, at least by providing them a window into the future. … So I’m really happy that we have these success stories and that you know, two decades of my life did not go to waste, where I cannot point to a single success.”

Having a plethora of success stories because of the center and its summer camps, many of the center’s staff and volunteers are students who were once a part of the summer camps.

“When they come in and see they can see themselves in (the students) and these are the students that used to be in their schools,” he said. “The students can relate (to them). They’re not going to relate to me when I tell them this is good … but they are inspired by students who were in their schools.”

One of the students working on several of the projects is engineering graduate student Abel Sanchez Trinidad, whose passion for engineering began at a UTCRS summer camp 10 years ago.

Originally from Puerto Rico, the Edinburg North alum said that already having some knowledge of engineering through his dad and grandfather that taught him how car and boat engines work, attended the camp in 2014 which made him realize he wants to pursue engineering.

Trinidad said building a robotic submarine and racing them was the highlight of his camp experience.

Tarawneh said Trinidad was one of the first participants in the summer camp program and eight years later when Trinidad started at UTRGV in 2018, the first thing he did was go up to Tarawneh and ask him to join UTCRS.

UTRGV mechanical engineering student, Santana Gutierrez, uses a sledge hammer on a railroad tie during a University Transportation Center for Railway Safety (UTCRS) class Monday, May 6, 2024 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

“You’re still young,” Tarawneh told Trinidad in 2018. “Take some time to learn, take the course, engage with some of the organizations and get some experience working with your hands. He came after that and told me ‘I did everything you told me to do, I want to work for you.’ And I said ‘If you’re that eager, then let’s do it.’ So he started working in 2021 and he has helped us build two test rigs and he is our expert welder.”

Being an important part of the team and assisting in the same camp he was part of 10 years ago, Trinidad said it is interesting to reflect back at how he was in the same seat that many of these students at the camps are.

“To me, that is more of an accomplishment than publishing papers and getting funding because the true thing is we’re here to serve the community,” Tarawneh said. “What’s the point of serving the community if you cannot inspire the students to be part of it. So for me, like seeing a student, like Abel, who was part of the camps, and now he’s doing a master’s … that’s really kind of like seeing your whole complete cycle.”