AWC Engineering comes of age

By Sonny Bergqvist

With a little luck and a lot of hard work and expertise, the Engineering program at Arizona Western College has come a long way in a very short time.

Mainly, it got a big boost with the award of a STEM a grant, which brought it from one faculty member to three. The grant was awarded in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education through its program to support Hispanic Serving Institutions.

It now has its own main campus building, where students can go straight from their AS degree at AWC to a BS in Systems Engineering that can be fully completed here in Yuma through the University of Arizona. The ET (Engineering Technology) building is a state-of-the art edifice for hands-on learning, with the last phase to be completed in 2016.

The grant also supports the students in the program, with tutors and supplemental instructors for the most difficult classes, like chemistry and physics. The grant also supports a new position in outreach and advising.

In 2011, AWC began the collaborative process of applying for a five-year grant designed to revitalize its science-based programs. This project now includes three engineering faculty members, a number of supplemental instructors, a modern high-tech facility and an engineering club -- all intended to assist students both academically and professionally, and specifically to improve student success in science programs.

Jonathan Mitchell, an engineering student graduating this spring, chose the program because he has always liked robotics and considered engineering a good way to enter that field. He highly recommends the AWC engineering program, which includes such advantages as lower tuition and more one-on-one interaction with the teachers.

"You can take your general education classes here, and you don't have to deal with a class of 500 people," Mitchell says. "It's easier here. You can get your prerequisites done and then move on to university."

Mitchell points out that the Engineering Technology (ET) building, which has seen dramatic modernization, is a great place for students to study. This repurposed Student Services building now includes two classrooms, two labs, a study area and a student project area. The glass walls also serve as whiteboards, allowing for less paper waste as students work on projects.

In addition, classrooms are equipped with ITN hardware, granting geographically bound students access to courses offered by the University of Arizona in Yuma County. Moreover, students have access to the essential engineering tools such as a Temperature Humidity Chamber and 3D printing.

Student involvement has also been a big part of creating excitement for this project. For that purpose, a student Engineering Club (WEST Club) was established in the early stages of this grant to build a strong community atmosphere in which outside experts could speak directly to students about internships and other local opportunities. All students have the opportunity to join WEST Club, which meets weekly and supports extracurricular activities like participation in MCAS Air Show.

The club was founded by AWC Prof. Victoria Martinez-Bellow, and Dr. Sam Peffers serves as the club's UofA faculty advisor.

"The WEST club is a great opportunity for students to expand their experience beyond the classroom into the world of engineering practice and application," said Dr. Peffers.

As the STEM grant moves into Year Five, students will be able to take in-person Systems Engineering courses on the AWC main campus. The teamwork between UofA and AWC has fostered a curriculum with a high standard of excellence. While the initial project will end in September 2016, AWC will continue in its partnership with with UofA.

Mitchell gives a final piece of advice to incoming and future engineering students at AWC: "Line up your classes and have a plan to complete your courses. I would recommend sitting down with an advisor so you know which classes to take."

STEM advisor/outreach coordinator, Sonny Bergqvist, holds office hours every day Monday through Thursday from 2-4 p.m. or by appointment. Since beginning in this position in February 2015, he has made it a priority to keep his office door open for all students seeking advice and answers. Bergqvist is also an AWC graduate and feels a strong connection to AWC because of the dedicated faculty who guided him on his academic journey.

Photo by Sonny Bergquist

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