Why opportunities in STEM matter for K-12 students

Kiersten Fernandez, Contributor

Editor’s note: This column was submitted by a member of the UT community.

As an outreach program coordinator for the Cockrell School of Engineering, my job is to promote engineering to K-12 students in not only Austin but also all over Texas. Our main focus is to reach middle school-aged students. We identified these ages as students who have sufficient STEM backgrounds to engage in meaningful engineering design challenges. This is also a critical time in their education path for decisions that put them on the right path to study engineering in college. 

One of our summer programs is Longhorn Engineering Summer Camp, which was designed for rising eighth and ninth graders from partner middle schools in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Our goal is to connect to schools where students may not have as many opportunities to explore engineering and engineering careers as other schools in Texas. The Longhorn Engineering Summer Camp is a free, interactive learning experience that engages students in activities that promote the field of engineering. Each day, camp attendees learn a few engineering fundamentals through an engaging presentation by UT faculty and students. These concepts then come to life through guided hands-on activities. 

Having been a middle school educator for 15 years prior to my outreach program coordinator position, I witnessed how crucial it is to partner with parents, teachers and the community. By connecting with teachers, we are able to connect with more families. When we reach more families, we are reaching more students who could have a future in engineering.  

Teachers help by promoting our events to their students and families, but they also invite us into their classrooms to share information about engineering through hands-on activities. Though we focus on the middle school years, by working in the classroom and holding events for students of all ages, we are reaching a population who may know nothing about engineering. 

In my last five years as a middle school teacher, the curriculum focused on college and career engagement. Students researched and learned more about different careers, engineering being one of them. However, they didn’t get the hands-on experience to understand what engineers did and how many different opportunities existed within the engineering field.

If a student is on a trajectory to be the first in their family to attend college, their parents often have many questions regarding what their student needs to do to best prepare themselves. We seek to answer these questions while providing engaging and interactive engineering activities for entire families. An example of a family event on campus is World of Engineering Day, which is a free, in-person outreach event for K-12 students and their families to participate in engineering-based activities led by current UT engineering students. 

We hope that through our outreach opportunities students discover how engineering impacts our world on a daily basis. Mostly, our goal is to inspire and encourage students who might not normally be exposed to engineering careers.

Fernandez is the K-12 outreach program coordinator for the Cockrell School of Engineering.