Rio Grande Valley Initiative

Rio Grande Valley Initiative
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Background Phase I Process Updates


The University of Texas System (UT System) launched The Rio Grande Valley Initiative in January 2012, a ten year program to identify and implement ambitious and wide ranging education and research initiatives in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). The UT System’s objective is to address the needs of the RGV for improved access to high quality education programs, which will ultimately expand existing capacities, provide jobs, reduce poverty and enrich lives.

The initiative is comprised of four focus areas considered both critical and worthy of investment over the next ten years: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

STEM education is the fundamental building block upon which enhanced education and research opportunities will be advanced in Environment and Energy, Advanced Manufacturing and Allied Health. The RGV Initiative intends to build a collaborative culture and structure that convenes and interconnects all the public higher education capacity in the region and provides focus for greater impact by fully integrating the combined missions of higher education: research and discovery, teaching and learning and service to address specific societal and economic needs of the region.

The ten year plan will be implemented in multiple phases. Phase I, now being implemented in the first five years, will deploy three specific strategies, which are designed to provide the foundation for other strategies and initiatives which will be introduced later and sustained over time: UTeach, ValleySTARs and the Simulated Hospital.

The UT System Board of Regents has allocated $25 million in support of the RGV plan to implement initial activities through The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and The University of Texas – Pan American (UTPA). Funds allocated by the Board are intended to serve as a catalyst and incentive for subsequent years funding from external resources.

Implementation of the RGV plan will be an initiative managed by the System office and under the direction of the Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs (EVCAA). The scope and complexity of the RGV plan will require active leadership and management to maintain focus, ensure progress and evaluate success.

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Phase I

This initial phase implements three strategies: establish a simulated hospital (located in Harlingen) and mobile labs to serve Valley higher education institutions and medical facilities, replicate UTeach programs at both UTB and UTPA and recruit exceptional STEM faculty and researchers through a new ValleySTARs program, modeled after the successful UT System STARs program. An overview of the strategies and respective resource requirements follows.

Simulated Hospital
The major goal of the health component of the plan is to lessen health disparities caused by allied health provider shortages and knowledge gaps in health delivery systems. The number of students that many of the existing programs can competently serve is severely restricted. The simulated hospital will provide undergraduate and graduate students with experiences that simulate care in the real world with learning occurring through planned events that are coordinated with the curricula of the programs involved. Additionally, continuing education activities will be developed and offered on a fee basis to community health services providers with training needs.

Strategy: Increase the quantity and quality of clinical and technological experiences for students in health professions by creating and operating a simulated hospital that can serve various health organizations in the RGV. A simulated hospital is designed to replicate nearly all the essential aspects of a clinical situation by using manikins as patient surrogates, so that the student can have a greater variety and number of hands-on learning experiences that can be applied later, in real clinical practice. This also allows for repeated practice of difficult procedures. Quality is increased with skill mastery.

Action: A simulated hospital will be established at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio’s Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in Harlingen and operated to serve student demand from entry level nursing students at Texas Southmost College (TSC), South Texas College (STC), and Texas State Technical College (TSTC) to medical students at the RAHCs. The facility will be 15,000 square feet that includes a fully functional 20-bed teaching hospital with designated teaching areas for Trauma/ER, Obstetrics and Pediatrics, and Medical/Surgical simulations. Simulation equipment will include a combination of low, medium and high-fidelity manikins for adults, children, babies, newborns and birthing.

Because the facility will be located in Harlingen, it will be necessary to arrange and provide student/faculty transportation to and from the facility and the surrounding campuses at UTB in Brownsville, UTPA in Edinburg as well as the local community colleges.

It is anticipated that the simulated hospital will meet a regional need by providing continuing training opportunities, which do not currently exist, to health professionals practicing in regional public and private medical facilities. Delivery of such services will generate revenue for the hospital which will help offset total operating expenses.

Outcomes: The quality of training and, hence, the level of competency of students and professionals in the health disciplines and industry in the RGV will be enhanced. An increase of approximately 20% in the number of annual enrollments in Nursing and Physician Assistant programs is expected. Operating as a service bureau to other health education interests, both private and public, the simulated hospital will be able to earn revenues to help offset operating expenses.

Nationally, a severe lack of highly qualified high school teachers in specific STEM disciplines leads to weak preparation of high school students for success in STEM fields. This is caused by (1) a shortage of students opting for a post-secondary major in a STEM field and (2) a shortage of STEM majors going into teaching. This situation is especially true in the RGV. The major goals of the STEM education element of this plan are to increase the number of students, especially those from underrepresented and low socioeconomic populations, who choose teaching careers in math and science fields, and to provide programs for current public school teachers who are teaching outside of their content area to become proficient in teaching the STEM fields.

Strategy: expand the number of undergraduates who will train as future STEM teachers by replicating UTeach programs at both UTPA and UTB to provide the highest caliber pre-service training in math and science education. Community college curriculum and instruction will be aligned to assure smooth transfer of students into STEM majors. Increase the number of public school teachers who are trained and qualified to provide STEM education to their students.

Action: UTeach teacher preparation programs will be replicated in at UTB and UTPA, in collaboration with TSC, STC and TSTC.

Outcomes: The UTeach program will begin in the fall 2012 semester at UTB and UTPA.

Additionally, the improvements in UTPA’s and UTB’s delivery of math and science pre-service education for teachers and the increased collaboration between UTPA, UTB and the region’s community colleges and public school districts will build a culture that emphasizes the importance of STEM education. Lastly, the program intends to improve the qualifications and content knowledge of STEM teachers in area high schools for 40 teachers per year.

ValleySTARs Program
The ValleySTARs program is based upon the extremely popular and successful UT System STARs program for “Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention” of outstanding faculty. The ValleySTARs program will permit UTB and UTPA to request funding to cover faculty salary and benefits for no more than three years in support of their recruitment efforts for new “star” faculty to teach in STEM fields. Recruited faculty will be appointed to full-time, tenured positions. It is essential that the quantity and quality of teaching and learning in STEM fields is enhanced by state of the art teaching concepts and technology employed by scholar teachers.

The criteria for allocating funding will be based on the following:

  • Extraordinary commitment to undergraduate teaching demonstrated in a variety of ways, including mentoring, service and advising, among others.
  • Sustained high performance as evidenced by student evaluations.
  • The extent to which the recruitment will provide outstanding scientific leadership in an area of significant strength to the individual institution, e.g., the addition of a high quality research program in an underdeveloped area within the institution or a substantial enhancement of an existing program.
  • The extent to which recruitment provides important research leadership in a priority area for the UT System and/or the State of Texas, e.g. research in underdeveloped aspects of science, engineering or technology.
  • The extent to which the recruitment would introduce a researcher into high quality collaborative activities involving interactions between health science campuses and academic campuses, or among multiple campuses.
  • The extent to which the recruitment will contribute to scientific development in areas bridging multiple disciplines, enhancing translation of research from bench to bedside, or provide scientific or technological skills supportive of a number of other investigators and/or programs.

A total of $10 million is allocated for the ValleySTARs program. Allocations are intended to provide salary and benefits for no more than three consecutive years. Thereafter, the faculty’s research program and institution will develop the recurring resources to sustain the recruited faculty’s salary, benefits and other operating expenses. The institutions will make good faith efforts to contribute to the startup and recurring operating costs (ideally, between 10-20% of the System’s contribution) for faculty recruitment, depending upon the resources available for this purpose.

Strategy: funding will be available for cluster hiring in critical areas of need for the RGV. The plan is to hire a critical mass of faculty/researcher groups that will substantially address the scientific, education and health-related problems faced by this community.

Action: UTB and UTPA will undertake a national search for ValleySTARs faculty. Recruiting and hiring will be done collaboratively between UTB and UTPA to avoid redundancy in program development and targeted faculty. The ValleySTARs program will be administered via the UT System Office of Academic Affairs. A panel of high caliber STEM faculty, staffed by the Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Planning and Assessment, will evaluate proposals requesting funding. Evaluation will occur primarily via electronic means so that timely decisions may be accomplished during this process. Final allocation decisions will be made by the EVCAA.

Outcomes: Approximately 20 new faculty positions will be recruited. The ValleySTARs program will apply the metrics used by the regular and successful STARs program. These will include: sponsored research projects generated by the initiative, technology transfer, number of patents, scientific publications, service on national or international boards, number of undergraduate students involved in research and number of graduate students attracted by this initiative.

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Progress Updates

In the first year of implementation, academic year 2011-12, all three of the Phase I strategies have been launched.

UTeach implementation at UTPA and UTB began with the Planning Year activities that included training of campus personnel, identification and preparation of classroom and laboratory spaces, design of the curriculum, purchase of the class and support materials and technical assistance from the UTeach Institute’s expert staff. Master teachers were hired and the first cohorts of students were recruited and have begun classes. UTPA and UTB have enrolled 122 students in their first UTeach cohorts.

Valley STARS has begun seeking promising new faculty at the STARS level. Since January, 2012, representatives from UTPA, UTB, the UTSPH and UT System have collaborated to identify common areas of interest and capacity where they could collaborate at a Valley STARS level in research activities in knowledge areas targeted in the RGV Initiative. The provosts of the two universities organized their own teams to explore strengths and needs and found several compelling opportunities. In late March all three component entities submitted plans that pursue support for Valley STARS candidates under three themes: Biomedical (including neurosciences, bioinformatics and health economics, and in STEM biochemistry), Energy and Engineering.

Eight positions in Bio-informatics/disease modeling and neuropsychology have been approved and UTB and UTPA are presently advertising for and interviewing candidates.

All three components, neurosciences, bioinformatics and health economics, can be interactive and the program will be integrated across the campuses. The addition of STEM positions in biochemistry is also completely consistent with the overall biomedical theme of obesity and diabetes and related conditions, and can contribute across the spectrum of biomedical components. These can also provide opportunities for increasing the quality and quantity of STEM education in addition to augmenting the parallel programs in Diabetes/Obesity being developed by the UTSPH.

The neurosciences components are all highly interactive and include research on the psychological effects of obesity and diabetes (and include brain imaging), basic neuroscience studies of brain pathways and the effect of obesity and diabetes in animal models and will also engage in bioinformatics in looking at the genetic control of the brain response to obesity and diabetes.

A STEM-oriented development of research programs in energy could draw upon the particular strengths of UTPA and include involvement of environmental faculty at UTB.

A STEM-oriented development of research programs in engineering could capitalize upon UTPA’s substantial strength in this area, with particular focus on manufacturing, instrumentation and nanotechnology.

Simulated Hospital implementation has begun with a design phase that is expected to be completed in September 2012.  Total square footage of the simulation hospital is about 12,000 square feet of usable space.  The planned simulation includes:

  • a multi-bed general ward unit
  • an anesthesia area, where anesthesiologists can be trained in their field
  • a full operating room or basic operating suite
  • a recovery unit next to the OR, which is a general area so that it can be used for other functions
  • a pediatric ICU, post-partum and birthing area
  • a daily living unit, which would be available for those that need rehabilitation and will double as a place for counseling
  • a large task training area where students can learn basic procedural tasks
  • large classrooms
  • a flexible design so that any given room can be modified as the need arises

The simulated hospital will be made available to groups of students whose fields include a broad range of health professions for training.

Approval for the initiation of construction in Harlingen will be sought in the autumn. Community stakeholders that include all the higher education institutions, hospitals and experts have met regularly to define the program that best suits the needs of the area and to explore means for long term sustenance of the program. This process has led to the emergence of opportunities for enhancement of the original concept. Among these are the use of remote programming and multisite simultaneous simulation activities that can be observed and monitored from any site providing an opportunity for teaching and training across the region by people in the region or specialists from another area. This could be one of the first sites in the country to develop such a wide network of clinical simulation teaching programs. The vision is to eventually include hospital staff as well in order to provide ongoing continuing education through clinical simulation. The ability to provide technical assistance and simulation model programming remotely greatly enhances the capacity of the central simulation hospital to work with small programs that train health professionals such as nurses, physicians assistances, nurse practitioners, LVNs and other health professions as well as provide simulation experience to existing health professionals in hospitals.

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