Students at the St. Mary's University biology lab. Photo courtesy of St. Mary's University.
Students at the St. Mary's University biology lab. Photo courtesy of St. Mary's University.

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) announced a grant worth more than $5 million to St. Mary’s University meant to enhance the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs Tuesday. The grant will be administered through the university’s School of Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) and their Excellence in STEM Education project.

“This grant will provide a strong boost to the implementation of the university’s strategic vision for the School of Science, Engineering and Technology, and we are especially excited about the impact that this grant will have on our university and our ability to serve the STEM needs of our region,” said St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler.

The $5,325,970.00 grant comes from the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) STEM Program. The program’s goal is to increase the quality and quantity of educational services available to Hispanic and low-income students. St. Mary’s University, located on the city’s Westside, is a majority Hispanic campus, and the oldest university in San Antonio.

SET Dean Winston Erevelles said that back in 2009, the historic university took an in-depth look at its placement in San Antonio’s growing future.

“We asked, ‘what is it that St. Mary’s University should be doing in the region?’” Erevelles said.

According to Erevelles, it was clear that STEM industries were emerging as the dominant providers of high paying jobs in San Antonio and beyond.

“The STEM industries are driving job creation and economic growth all over the United States,” Castro said. “It’s critical our colleges and universities train the next generation of workers to excel in these increasingly important fields.”

This need for a highly trained workforce, coupled with a growing number of Hispanic students enrolling in STEM-related fields, provided a natural goal for the SET. A homegrown talent pool would serve the university, the city, and the industry.

“The city is growing,” Erevelles said. “When you look at what our region is going to need to thrive, having a well-prepared workforce is essential.”

The growth of the SET became a major piece of Mengler’s strategic Gateway Plan for the university.

“This grant is a big piece of realizing the SET vision,” Erevelles said.

The grant, which will be administered over a five year period, will enhance the Excellence in STEM Education program in several ways.

The money will be used to update facilities so that students are working in conditions that reflect the current workplaces in STEM jobs. In particular, the biology and chemistry labs for the university’s forensics department will receive updates to provide realistic training for the growing field.

“Forensic science is a field that is getting more defined,” said Associate Professor of Environmental Science Dave Turner, who also is the grant director.

Turner would like to see the St. Mary’s University forensics program become a leader in that field. Increasingly accurate and specific science is needed to legitimize forensic testimony, explained Turner, and much of that can be achieved through enhanced professionalism and rigor in the classroom.

The SET will also use grant money to launch a new bioinformatics program, in which students will have exposure to big data and multidisciplinary study. The major will include computer science, engineering, biology, statistics, and math.

“This is a new field. It’s just bursting with new ideas,” Turner said.

The grant also will help St. Mary’s align with the Alamo Colleges, creating a natural pathway to a bachelor’s degree. San Antonio College (SAC) also received a Department of Education HSI STEM grant totaling $3.8 million. SAC President Robert Vela reiterated the community college’s complimentary commitment to channeling students to four year universities.

“The grant promotes and highlights the efforts we have been traditionally doing to support students in the STEM fields,” Vela said. “It will assist in developing creative ways to ensure students complete their associate’s and transfer to a four-year university in the STEM fields.”

With this cooperation, St. Mary’s University expects to double the number of transfer students coming in through its STEM programs.

The SAC grant will fund the “Tenances: Staying the Course” project at SAC, which aims to increase the number of Hispanic and low-income students achieving STEM field degrees.

On the other end of the education experience, St. Mary’s University plans to use the grant to pursue experiential learning for its students through internships and hands-on experiences in the business world.

St. Mary’s University expects to increase enrollment in STEM programs by at least 6% over the course of the project, with at least 50% of new students being Hispanic and/or low income. As a result, it projects at least an 8% increase in undergrad STEM degrees, of which at least 9% more will be awarded to Hispanic students.

Top image: Students at the St. Mary’s University biology lab.  Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s University. 

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.