In the midst of a worrying economy and less-than-flattering education statistics, a partnership between Science Foundation AZ (SFAz), the University of Arizona College of Engineering and Arizona high schools has managed to serve as a beacon of hope for Arizonans pessimistic about our state’s economic future.

A success story now four years running, SFAz’s STEM Initiatives aim to attract students from 20 schools throughout southern Arizona to pursue careers in the sciences and technology by way of enrollment in the UA’s Introduction to Engineering course — typically open to undergraduates — during their senior year in high school.

Johana Guzman and Cali Squire, both graduates of Flowing Wells High School's ENGR 102 course, say this class is very different from standard science classes, in that it more closely mimicked what they've come to learn is the real-life experience of an engineer.

Because the class was largely project-based, both agree that it was extremely "hands-on".

Squire said, "the pressure of project deadlines required us to come in on our own time."

Guzman added, "We always always always worked in teams and had to learn from our own mistakes. If something didn't work right, we had to figure out what went wrong and engineer a new way to solve the problem. I always knew I wanted to do something with rockets or planes, and I have always been pretty good at math and science. After taking this class, I knew my mind was set on engineering".

Now, a freshman at the UA studying aerospace engineering, Guzman credits the class with helping her find her path, adding that

"Without this class I am not sure I would have ended up doing what I love," she said.

Whereas the number of college students who stay in the Engineering program all four years is between 70 and 75 percent, Caroline VanIngen-Dunn, Manager of STEM Initiatives asserts that, “The average first-year retention rate among engineering students attending UA who were enrolled in the high school ENGR 102 course is 97 percent”.

Now a UA freshman, Cali Squire insists, "I am really grateful that I was exposed to that learning environment before I got to the UA, because it helped me adapt to the material presented at the college level."

Although she was decidedly less certain of a particular emphasis on which to conduct her studies, Squire said the course helped to spark an interest that allowed her to "get involved in clubs and research on campus," which ultimately led her to chemical engineering.

The purpose and the success of the program is in offering students an insight into the exciting, albeit challenging, coursework of a UA Engineering student, and exposing them to the opportunities that such an education may provide for their futures.

With enrollment this past academic year rising to almost 300, the program hopes to garner even greater participation in the coming year with the help of two grants — one from the National Science Foundation for expansion of the program, and another from Intel Foundation for the involvement of UA undergraduates in helping to teach engineering-based problem solving as part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS).

Much like Squire points out that the course taught her to "not only make things, but to make things better", SFAz's STEM Initiatives are teaching Arizona how to make better our state's education system.

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