WESLACO, RGV – Professor Stephan Nix says the potential for a massive energy sector in northern Mexico played a part in Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s decision to open a school of engineering in the Rio Grande Valley.

Nix, dean of TAMUK’s college of engineering, says students who obtain degrees in chemical engineering, natural gas engineering, or environmental engineering can get great paying jobs in the oil and gas industry. All three degree programs will be available in the Valley within the next year.

“Eagle Ford Shale is going great guns right now but the future of oil and gas really lies across the border from us. The shale play there (in the Cuenca de Burgos) will probably be considerably larger than Eagle Ford. So, this is a great move for us to be down here in the Valley,” Nix told the Guardian, in an exclusive interview.

Nix said Kingsville is not directly in the Eagle Ford but that its service area includes the big shale play. He said just as TAMUK’s College of Engineering is involved in Eagle Ford and it can also be in the Cuenca de Burgos. He said this will happen from the Valley.

“We established a year ago something called the Eagle Ford Center for Research, Education, and Outreach. It is headquartered in Kingsville. We have a new 28,000 square foot facility for that which will be opening in December. We have a number of faculty members involved in research efforts from pipeline safety to environmentally friendly drilling and also handling the stresses on the infrastructure that goes along with heavy oil and gas activity. So, we see being in the Valley and the activities across the border as a natural extension for us. We are already established in the industry and we are just going to extend that,” Nix said.

Professor Stephan Nix is dean of Texas A&M University-Kingsville's college of engineering.
Professor Stephan Nix is dean of Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s college of engineering.

In his interview, Nix said he is looking forward to working closely with Texas A&M International University’s International Energy Institute, which is being developed by Maria Eugenia Calderón-Porter, assistant vice president for global initial at TAMIU. The institute launches in 2015. “I am sure that we will be working with our colleagues in Laredo, at International, on this. We already have good relationships with our friends in Laredo. I am sure we will be partnering with them in the future to expand educational opportunities down here,” Nix said.

Nix pointed out that TAMUK’s reputation for producing great engineers was forged in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when Frank H. Dotterweich taught there. “The students were known as Dott’s boys and they went on to lead many of the largest oil and gas companies in the world,” Nix said.

The College of Engineering is now named after Dotterweich. Today it boasts 2,800 students, 70 faculty, and 25 staff, and offers 19 programs. Eight of its engineering programs are accredited by ABET, the world’s leading engineering accreditation body. No other university in South Texas has this many accreditations for education in engineering.

To enthusiastic support from Mid Valley leaders, TAMUK announced on Friday that its plans to develop a school of engineering in Weslaco. The plan is to teach two courses next spring – chemical engineering and environmental engineering – and then, starting in the fall, develop three cohorts of students, one in chemical engineering, one in environmental engineering and one in natural gas engineering.

“Those will be our first three cohorts of students in the bachelor’s programs. As we grow, in three to four to five years, we will eventually reach about 15 programs here in Weslaco, at the bachelor’s level and the master’s level and the PhD level,” Nix said, at a luncheon at the Texas A&M Citrus Center on Friday.

Nix said the TAMUK Engineering Center at Weslaco aims to have 800 students learning various specialties in engineering in Weslaco by 2019-20. Initially, students, faculty and staff will be housed in buildings at the Texas A&M Citrus Center but by 2017-18, TAMUK plans to have a $25 million, 80,000 square foot engineering building in Weslaco.

“We are very excited about this. We are hope that we reach and plan to reach more than 800 students and about 35 faculty members. The interesting thing about those faculty members is that they won’t be faculty driving up and down the highway, either 77 or 281 from Kingsville. They will be resident faculty here in Weslaco, living and working here locally,” Nix said.

Nix said that in addition to the 15 educational programs TAMUK is bringing to the Valley, there will also be an important research component. “We will bring our research programs to the Valley. We already have a strong environmental research presence in the Valley but we will expand that and move into things like nanotechnology and biomass energy conversion and robotics, and environmentally-friendly drilling, for example. So, we will be expanding our research programs greatly. It is not just about bachelor’s programs. We will also have graduate programs, PhD programs and the research that goes along with those.”

Nix said none of this would be possible without its community college partners – South Texas College in McAllen, Weslaco and Rio Grande City and Texas State Technical College in Harlingen. “They really are going to lay the foundation for our presence here in the Valley. STC and TSTC will be educating our students in the first two years of their march towards their engineering degree. Without their partnership this could not happen. I am very grateful for that,” Nix said.

Dr. Ali Esmaeili, dean of the division of mathematics and science at STC, returned the compliment. “Dr. Nix is the best, the very best. We are so proud to be working with TAMUK and its College of Engineering,” Esmaeili told the Guardian, at Friday’s luncheon.

Nix said he was also very grateful for TAMUK’s Weslaco partners. “The City of Weslaco has been wonderful. The Weslaco EDC has been equally wonderful. They are welcoming, they are excited about us coming and we are excited about that. And, also, of course, our colleagues here at the Citrus Center who have been a great help to us.”

Nix concluded his remarks at the luncheon by saying how proud he and his colleagues in the college of engineering are to bring more science, technology and engineering education opportunities to the Valley.

“We are more than proud. We are very thankful because the mission of Texas A&M Kingsville and especially the College of Engineering is to make a STEM education and engineering education available to as many students as we can. That is our mission. We never stray from that. We are thankful every day for being able to carry out that mission. So, bringing this to the Valley is a dream we have had for a while. We are excited about it. We are here, we are here to stay. Thank you all for your support.”