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Victoria Serrano realized at an early age that education would be the key to a bright future. Growing up in David, Panama, she watched how her mother struggled to raise her and her sister without a college degree. She knew she wanted to pursue higher education — but her journey at Arizona State University inspired her to make an impact beyond her own success.
As an electrical engineering graduate student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, Serrano learned the importance of giving back through her involvement in student organization outreach activities.
Now she works as a full-time faculty member at the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Her outreach experiences have stayed with her, and now she spends her time introducing young people to engineering whenever she’s not teaching undergraduate classes or conducting interdisciplinary research.
Serrano’s extensive efforts to bring science, technology, engineering and math education to school-age kids will be recognized with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 2019 Meritorious Achievement Award in Outreach and Informal Education in November. The award honors IEEE members who take the time to teach STEM skills outside a classroom setting.
“It requires a lot of work and a lot of time to prepare everything, but having somebody recognize this effort, this sacrifice we make, is very rewarding,” Serrano said.
Serrano got her first taste of how valuable outreach is when she joined the ASU chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the Mechanical-Autonomous Vehicles, or MAV club, in which she served as outreach director and vice president.
MAV club adviser and Professor Armando Rodriguez was a big influence on Serrano getting involved in outreach. Serrano related to Rodriguez’s story of having a difficult childhood and using that as motivation to pursue education despite adversity. Rodriguez’s subsequent success and influence as a faculty member inspired her.
“If you really want kids to get a better education in their future, you should get involved in outreach,” Serrano said.
The MAV club brought K-12 students onto the ASU Tempe campus on the weekends to learn mathematical concepts and design mechanical birds.
With SHPE, Serrano visited Phoenix-area schools to lead activities with students and talk to parents about how to prepare their kids for college.
“You can see how they change their minds,” Serrano said. “At the beginning, they didn’t know what engineering was. But after a few sessions, some of them wanted to pursue an engineering degree in the future.”
She also wanted to teach other engineering concepts by showing students how to program robots to move around obstacles.
“I loved seeing the kids when they were learning something new,” Serrano said. “That’s very fascinating because you can actually see it in their faces, how happy they get.”
Hope Parker, associate director of engineering K-12 outreach in the Fulton Schools, remembers Serrano would bring her LEGO robotic snake to share with groups of students at MAV club outreach events.
“It was super engaging and interactive, which had the students asking so many questions and wanting to learn more,” Parker said. “She was great at meeting students at their level and connecting with them.”
Serrano also participated in the Engineering Projects in Community Service program, known as EPICS, which usually tasks students with working on a solution to a community service project. But Serrano proposed her own project instead: STEM Beyond the Borders, which had the support of EPICS in IEEE and the IEEE Control Systems Society Outreach Fund.
As part of the project, she took time off from her studies in Tempe to spent two weeks in her hometown of David, Panama, teaching high school students.
She drew from her MAV club experience and the help of fellow students at ASU to design an engineering curriculum. The students used MATLAB and Simulink computer programming tools to control robots to avoid obstacles.
“We wanted to show them that engineering is a path, a promising path in many senses, not only because it’s fun,” Serrano said. “They can solve problems for the community, and it’s also a well-paid career.”
The activities Serrano and the MAV team created truly embody ASU’s principles of social embeddedness and global engagement, Parker said.
“They reached out to the community to see what their needs were, built programming around that and, in doing so, ‘increased individual success through personalized learning pathways,’” said Parker, quoting ASU’s mission. “Not only did they do this in Arizona, but Victoria took her passion and commitment to students to Panama.”
Serrano jumped right into conducting more outreach activities with schoolchildren when she returned home to Panama after graduation in 2016. Wherever young people were — public markets, churches or schools — she conducted STEM learning programs.
“I realized how (outreach) was changing the lives of many high school students, and I really wanted to do this back home and I’m still doing it,” Serrano said. “I could also see that many technologies and things that I learned in the U.S., many students (in Panama) wouldn’t get the opportunity to get exposed to. So that’s another reason I feel so motivated (to do outreach).”
To help expand her outreach activities, Serrano created the CIATEC mobile center. The acronym comes from an abbreviation of the Spanish words for science (ciencia), art (arte) and technology (tecnología). The CIATEC mobile center provides STEM-related programs to children and teenagers in the community.
“When alumni engage younger students, they bring another dimension to outreach — true life experience, knowledge, skills needed, new trends happening and a different level of mentorship,” Parker said. “It really is so beneficial for younger students to have role models from college students through professionals in their careers.”
While she spends a considerable amount of time introducing engineering concepts to kids preparing for college, Serrano is also making strides to empower college students to conduct research. She’s inspired by the support she received from her ASU doctoral research adviser, Professor Konstantinos Tsakalis.
“We have a research competition every year at my university, and I always advise groups of students who want to work on research projects,” Serrano said.
As an IEEE member and professor, she also advises college student groups working on engineering service projects.
“This year I have served as a committee member of EPICS in IEEE,” Serrano said. “I have been able to give feedback to proposals, and I am trying to promote the program not only in Panama, but also in other regions.”
Though it’s hard work, Serrano knows she isn’t alone.
“When you’re willing to make a positive change in the community,” Serrano said, “there will always be people ready to join you.”
Top photo: ASU alumna Victoria Serrano conducts outreach activities in Panama with LEGO MINDSTORMS robotic kits to introduce children to the possibilities of engineering. Her outreach work earned her the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 2019 Meritorious Achievement Award in Outreach and Informal Education, which honors IEEE members who teach STEM skills outside the classroom. Photo courtesy of Victoria Serrano