Sitting in a darkened El Paso movie theater, young Austin Zambrano marveled at what Tony Stark, the alter ego of the Marvel superhero Iron Man, accomplished during the character’s 2008 movie. 

At the moment, Zambrano decided to become an engineer/inventor, but after the movie finished, he determined his goal was unattainable.

He believed that engineers do not come from Horizon City, his hometown 22 miles east of El Paso. He thought he was destined for a more mundane career until he participated in the ExciTES Summer Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso before his junior year at Horizon High School.

Zambrano said the program, designed to expand the knowledge, imagination and creativity of rising third graders through 11th graders, changed his life. He hoped to do the same for other aspiring engineers as coordinator of this year’s ExciTES (Excellence in Technology, Engineering and Science), which starts June 12.

The 21-year-old UTEP junior electrical engineering major with minors in robotics and mathematics took a break from his ExciTES preparations to talk about what the program meant to him, and how the program’s team also can learn valuable lessons.

Zambrano, an inquisitive youngster who liked to tinker with discarded items in his grandfather’s backyard, recalled how he earned the title of “most creative” from his week at ExciTES camp. To him, his prize – a green spork, which he still has – symbolized possibilities.

“(The spork) proved to me that engineering was doable; daunting and difficult; but doable,” Zambrano said from ExciTES headquarters, the ACES (Advancement Center for Engineering Students) offices in the basement of UTEP’s Classroom Building.

“Initially, I thought engineering was for geniuses, but then I thought I could be an engineer like Tony Stark and the Ghostbusters if you put in the effort,” said Zambrano, who picked his major because Stark received the same degree. “When I earned that spork, I thought of that little kid in the theater. This would be possible for a kid from Horizon. This could be my reality.”

ExciTES, which dates back to the 1970s, gives participants from throughout the region a chance to be a problem-solving engineer. The program’s goals are similar to what they were decades ago, said Gabby Gandara, assistant dean for Engineering Student Success who oversees the program. ExciTES wants to introduce young students, especially those from underrepresented communities, to engineering concepts and career opportunities, and encourage them to attend college; UTEP if possible.

Gandara estimated that more than 500 students from the College of Engineering have served as ExciTES team members since the 1990s. Students submit anywhere from 60 to 120 applications to be part of the team, and go through interviews for these paid positions. The program is funded through residuals of past grants, the College of Engineering and partnerships with secondary education schools. Some of the college’s departments offer course credit to team members.

Zambrano and his team – two engineering ambassadors and five ExciTES interns – will spend the next few weeks at ACES to plan, organize, practice, preview and critique the various student modules to make them as fun, understandable and challenging as possible. They range from simple, hands-on robotics for the youngest campers to the always popular cardboard canoes, hot air balloons and water bottle rockets for the middle school and high school participants.

The team also plans to introduce a new Electronics in Extreme Environments module, which has space travel applications. In this module, campers will create a working circuit, enclose it in an as yet undetermined material, and then expose it to intense heat and cold to see if the circuit survives.

While the priority applications have been processed, ExciTES organizers said there are a few spots left for each session. Gandara said organizers will continue to review applications until the Friday before the requested session begins. Partial scholarships are still available.

The ExciTES team, mostly sophomores and juniors from different engineering branches, receives   training to understand the science, physics and mathematics of each module so they can explain it in age-appropriate language to campers who may not be familiar with “scary” equations and principles. They also promote the concepts of respect, teamwork, leadership and camaraderie into the lessons. At the same time, the program teaches UTEP students about budgets, conflict resolution, written and oral communication, and how to manage fluid situations.

Vanessa (Melendez) Lopez, an ExciTES team member from the late 1990s, said the summer program gave her the confidence to succeed as a student and as a professional. She earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2001.

Lopez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, learned about the program after she went to the College of Engineering’s Dean’s office to look for a job. She met Gandara who suggested she join the ExciTES team. She liked the idea of working with young students on engineering projects, and the support and enthusiasm of the other team members.

The UTEP graduate said the summer experience, her first job in the U.S., taught her about trust, resourcefulness, workplace safety, improvisation, and other skills. She said that ExciTES led to teaching and research assistant opportunities at UTEP, and significant out-of-town internships with Ford and IBM, before she graduated and landed a job with ATK Launch Systems – Promontory in Utah to work on electrical instrumentation for the Space Shuttle. She added that she still uses ExciTES lessons as a lead systems engineer for a government contractor.

“I never saw myself as a leader until I started working (at ExciTES),” Lopez said during a telephone interview from her home in San Antonio. “It was just amazing.”

Lopez, a wife and mother, also wrote an award-winning bilingual children’s book, “Curiosity Makes the Engineer,” in response to her daughter’s observation as a kindergarten student that her mother did not “look” like an engineer based on the books she read and the movies or cartoons she watched. The book, written in 2013, was published in 2021.

Gandara said the ripple effect of ExciTES can be seen in generations of past, present and future engineers such as Lopez and Zambrano who have been touched by the program as a camper and/or as a team member. At each level, there is a different kind of learning that takes place. For UTEP students, ExciTES is an opportunity to acquire, share and expand the skills and knowledge that will serve them as students and professionals.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters in partnership with Open Campus.