The program, which partners with national laboratories, is proving its value to students.
From its inception in 2020 the Growing STEMS Consortium (GSC) was geared entirely toward students.
The program, designed to train the next generation of engineers for the Department of Energy (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) workforce and headed by Texas Tech University's Michelle Pantoya, partnered four universities with Sandia National Lab, Los Alamos National Lab, Consolidated Nuclear Security, Pantex and Y-12.
The goal was to give students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educations the chance to earn real-world experience and train in professional laboratories and to encourage diversity in STEM fields. Pantoya's Combustion Lab, part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, offers an ideal starting spot for the program.
Erica Lopez is a non-traditional student in the GSC program. She is a mother of two, lives in Amarillo and is married to a disabled combat veteran. Her journey to receive her education has not been an easy one.
“I've commuted to Lubbock from Amarillo several times a week since transferring to Texas Tech,” Lopez said. “My husband and two sons have made many sacrifices for me to pursue my educational goals.”
During her senior year at Texas Tech Lopez read an article about the GSC program and reached out to Pantoya and set up a meeting.
“It was a long-term goal of mine to have a career within the DOE or the Department of Defense,” Lopez said. “After meeting with Dr. Pantoya, I was invited into the GSC program my final semester at Texas Tech and became part of the family in her Combustion Lab.
“This program opened so many doors for me and blessed my family in so many ways. In one of my hardest semesters at Texas Tech, where I faced financial and mental hardships, the GCS and Combustion Lab provided a safe place where I could study, collaborate and even eat. It was a home away from home.”
The GSC program also provided Lopez with professional opportunities. The networking and training she received created the chance for an internship at a DOE or lab, which she is hopeful will lead to what she terms her “dream job.”
Lopez is not alone in her experience.
“Every student that participates has an internship at a DOE or Department of Defense (DOD) lab,” Pantoya said. “We're literally putting these students into the working environment of a national laboratory setting so they can start to understand how what they're learning here would translate to their actual career.
“We're giving students this specialized training. Ideally what it does is reduce lead time so when they transition to a working environment, they can hit the ground running. They are prepared and don't have to spend three years figuring out what the labs do and how to fit in with their goals.”
The program's success was highlighted by an annual meeting with over 100 attendees including students, instructors and representatives from each of the partner laboratories.
“The turnout of stakeholders was proof that we're doing a good job,” Pantoya said. “It was so student-centric and sort of an instructional mentoring session for everybody.”
Working with DOE and DOD partners, Pantoya considers the science of energetic materials “the canvas by which we start to train students.”
“Understanding the science of energetic materials is the best way to train engineers for national security and defense applications,” she said. “Our Growing STEMS Consortium has that last ‘S' dedicated to s tudents because that's what we're doing, we're growing students with an expertise in energetic materials.”
Over 80% of the resources of the DOE grant go directly to preparing students for roles with the partner labs, and for members of the program like Lopez, the commitment to the students is paying off.
“I will be forever grateful for all of the opportunities, the experience I've gained and the type of comradery the GSC program has brought into my life,” she said. “It's given me the opportunity to intern with a DOE lab that is rooted in helping our country and our military.
“I'm in a better position to take care of my family and pay it forward to my husband for the sacrifices he made for this county and our family, all because of this program.”