Michelle Pantoya is the principal investigator on the collaborative project between Texas Tech and three other institutions.
The Department of Energy (DOE) offers exciting opportunities for scientific discovery and engineering new technologies that will power our future. To help students thrive in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning and transition into DOE careers, Texas Tech University's Michelle Pantoya, a professor and the J. W. Wright Regents Chair in Mechanical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, is leading a team and creating the "Growing STEMs Consortium: Training the Next Generation of Engineers for the DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Workforce" program through funding from the DOE.
Pantoya, who specializes in energetic materials and runs the Combustion Lab, said the solicitation from the DOE resonated with her because it focuses more on how students become successful in STEM careers rather than the "next big discovery."
"I started to think about the educational steps we take to groom students to be successful workers in the future," she said. "That's why this particular solicitation from the DOE really struck me. It gave me a chance not just to talk about the technical aspects of the scientific work, but to talk about how to prepare people to be successful in their future technical careers. There's actually a science behind it that's not talked about heavily in academia. It's really more like, 'Oh look, we just invented the next new and great material for this application.' It's not, 'How are we doing that with the students?'
"There's a distinction there that has been, to me, undervalued. When I saw this solicitation, I realized that the people writing it had placed value on that process. It allowed me the chance to really explore it in some depth, then talk about it in the proposal and develop an entire plan around the education process. Those plans are not unfamiliar to me; they're what I have been doing for several years. So, it was really just capitalizing on what I already understood and putting it together in a coherent, systematic way."
To fully develop the Growing STEMs Consortium, Pantoya is working with Michael Hargather from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, including its Energetic Materials Research & Testing Center that will lead research-centered, student-training activities; Linda Muñoz, a technical educator from Amarillo College who will focus on training the consortium participants for technician certifications, including welding, machinist, electrician and nondestructive testing; and Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz from the University of Houston, who will focus on engineering education and outreach for culturally and linguistically diverse students.
"The University of Houston has an aspect of this, and it really is directed toward understanding how underrepresented students learn engineering at young ages, because that promotes their interest in STEM in the future," Pantoya said. "That's actually a very unique aspect of this proposal. I really want Zenaida to engage in designing research to address these gaps in improving STEM and engineering awareness in culturally and linguistically diverse students. Even though it's at the elementary age, educational tools have such an impact on their development that, if this becomes a long-term project, we'll really be able to see how the steps she takes early on, like in kindergarten, transcend those individuals' development through elementary, middle school and beyond."
Any student wanting to apply to be part of the consortium needs to have an interest in the work done at the DOE, Pantoya said.
"Without that, there's no purpose in them moving forward because they will spend many months working at a DOE laboratory or plant facility," she said. "The stipulation, however, is that students must be U.S. citizens to participate because that is a requirement for the security clearance needed to work at the DOE facilities."
Pantoya said this consortium is vital to higher education and STEM fields in general.
"No. 1, there is a lack of well-trained and prepared STEM employees who can work for the DOE and the federal government," she said. "There are people retiring who have been in the business for 40 years who are beyond experts in the field of energetic materials, and they're leaving. Without that knowledge base, our country would be at a big disadvantage in the way we develop our nation's security in the future."
There's a big need to train STEM people, Pantoya said. There also is a lack of skillsets that are focused on energetic materials understandings and on engineering in general. The consortium is filling this gap of people power that will help the DOE and the U.S. progress in the future.
"Another gap is the need to create a diverse workplace because different cultures within the U.S. bring forward, naturally, different perspectives on how to solve problems, and engineers, by their very nature, are problem solvers," Pantoya said. "Having a diverse workforce enables us to look at problems from diverse perspectives. That usually lends toward hugely successful problem-solving. People from the same backgrounds have similar ideas, such that we might be able to address a problem, but we might not do it with as much creativity as a diverse group would. We need to fill that gap in diversity as far as STEM employment goes, too. This program fills both of those needs."