Newly accredited ASU summer program opens up STEM opportunities for underrepresented students

High school students get college credit, taste of university life at Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program


Students seated at desks in a classroom listen to an unseen speaker.

Incoming first-year ASU manufacturing engineering student Jenavieve Echegaray, from Tucson, listens as the class supervisor reviews a calculus problem during the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program on June 17 at the ASU Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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It was Monday afternoon. Spotify was playing pop music in the background and the instructor stood behind a lectern wearing a paper Burger King crown. It is not a scene one would expect in a college class at Arizona State University.

The students were part of the newly accredited Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program. They were studying precalculus; more specifically, implicit differentiation. A complicated equation was featured on the overhead projector. A student in the back of the room let out a low groan.

The program, which runs from June 2–July 12, drew 83 fresh-faced, first-generation and underrepresented students to ASU’s Tempe campus — many for the very first time. 

Most of the participants are high school graduates. Unlike some of their peers, who are spending the summer celebrating before settling down for college studies this fall, these students are devoting six weeks to a specialized college STEM course. They will be learning everything from college algebra to calculus II for engineering. 

The students will leave the camp with three college credits in university-level math, science or engineering-based coursework. 

And so much more. 

“They are getting free tuition, and room and board,” said Cindy Romero, program manager for the program. “In addition, they get to experience college life while living at a residence hall. They also get to meet like-minded peers from across the state and learn academic tips to help them successfully transition to college.” 

The students begin their day with a lecture at 9 a.m. Tutoring is offered for four hours every day. Regular coaching sessions take place each week. On Monday, the students were learning how to use the FAFSA form and scholarships to help pay for tuition. 

All the staff for the program are ASU students or alumni — typically math and science majors. 

Jacob Cooper, who on Monday was supervising the precalculus class, graduated from ASU in May with a bachelor’s degree in math and is starting a PhD program in the fall. 

He describes the students in the program as gifted and bright. On a recent test, the average score was a 95. 

“This is unheard of in most calculus classes,” he said.

Meaningful math

Now in its 39th year, the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program is one of the first pre-college STEM programs in the U.S. to earn accreditations from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools for its progress in broadening opportunities for Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students in STEM.

The certification was due, in part, to its documented success in providing meaningful out-of-school programming. Preliminary data shows increased participation in STEM for underrepresented students: Nearly 72% of those who attend the camp and graduate from college have degrees in STEM.

The program is competitive. Only about 25% of the pool of applicants are accepted. This summer, 72% of them are first-generation college-bound students.

Camp participant Jenavieve Echegaray said the program is very welcoming and she has made a lot of friends.

“The staff and teachers helped me to gain confidence in math, and since I wanted to attend ASU, it seemed like the perfect pathway,” said Echegaray, who will study manufacturing engineering at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering this fall. “They showed me that college doesn't have to be super hard or scary.” 

It can even be fun. Students went to "A" Mountain their first week and will attend “Hamilton” at ASU Gammage before they finish the honors program. 

Kennett Ho gets tutored during a study period at ASU's summer STEM program.
Class tutor Amy Rogel, a second-year medical studies student, works with incoming first-year student Kennett Ho on a pre-calculus problem during ASU's Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program on June 17. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

More than 3,000 students have attended the STEM camp since it started in 1985. Of those students, 60% went on to attend ASU. 

Which is part of the long-term plan. 

“Our end goal is to get these students to come to ASU and become Sun Devils,” Romero said. “And come back and work for the camp over the summer.”

Kennett Ho hopes the summer program will fill in the gaps left from high school calculus classes that were taught online. He wants to be more prepared for his first year at ASU. Ho plans to major in computer science and eventually work as a software engineer. 

“It’s fun. I am meeting new people and learning to be in a college environment,” he said. “College is very different from high school. It is faster and the professors are more knowledgeable.”

Friends and family affairs

Making friends seems to be a common theme for these studious students. 

A close and surprisingly connected community has been a side benefit of the program throughout the decades. Alumni mixers take place each year and people from all 39 years attend. 

“There were marriages that came out of the program. We have legacy families. Parents and all their kids have attended the program," Romero said. “Now we are trying to help the students have that same experience.”

Romero, who grew up in Yuma, Arizona, attended the summer STEM program in 1993 and made lifelong friends.

“I knew I needed to get out of Yuma. But I didn’t know how,” she said. 

“I met my best friend here. We finished our math degree at ASU together, we were pregnant together and our kids are best friends.”

Ciera Duran grew up in Casa Grande, Arizona, and didn’t have many plans after graduating from high school. 

“Neither of my parents had attended college,” said Duran, now a coordinator for the summer STEM program. “My father suggested that I go into the military.”

Then her uncle made her apply to the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program. At the time, he was Romero’s tutor. She was admitted and attended for two summers beginning in 2006 and went on to graduate from ASU. Since then, she has had siblings and cousins attend the program. 

She credits the honors science and math program with changing her life. 

“I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t a part of this program,” she said. “I might have just been stuck in my little town.” 

Video by EJ Hernandez/ASU News

Success story

Michael Garcia said the camp impacted his life in multiple ways. 

"By design, the program is intense," said Garcia, who participated in 2003 and 2004. "You learn quickly about time management, the importance of studying and practicing, how to ask for help when needed, how to self-teach. All the skills you bring with you that help you prepare for college."

A first-generation college student from the Maryvale area of West Phoenix, Garcia said he didn’t have that type of academic discipline and experience through elementary or high school.

But the academic support he received in the Joaquin Bustoz Math-Science Honors Program helped him gain confidence in his ability to master math and science. 

"You start to walk around campus and eventually you walk with a little more swagger, because you start to believe in yourself — that you can tackle any hard problem given to you," Garcia said.

He said the camp contributed to his success both in college and throughout his career. 

He went on to work at Space X, designing hardware to support several rockets, and he currently works as a product design engineering manager at Meta (formerly Facebook).

"Growing up where I did, the only path I knew to college was playing sports," he said. "The camp opened my eyes to opportunities I never knew existed."

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