Latina Professors at Texas State
By: Daniella Carrera
Latinas make up only 6% of professional positions in science and engineering, which is a problem Texas State University’s LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research is tackling through research, mentorship and inspiration.
This issue is a key driver of Dr. Araceli Ortiz, the executive director of the Institute. One of her goals is to encourage opportunities for women and underrepresented communities in STEM. Ortiz’s leadership and research has inspired other Latina professors at Texas State to research STEM education and incorporate culturally responsive teaching in the classroom.
With the Institute, Ortiz wanted to create a supportive environment where professors can feel comfortable with the nuances and identity that comes with being a Latina in STEM. The Institute team has curated a community of professors who serve as mentors for women and underrepresented students pursuing careers in STEM, which she believes is a community effort.
“We need to empower and provide the resources for those that are leading because it isn’t going to be a person, be it me or be it someone else, who's going to go in there and solve everything,” Ortiz said.
Dr. Alejandra Sorto, a mathematics professor who examines how math is taught to English-language learners, knows the value of an encouraging support system and mentorship. Those are what prompted her to pursue a doctorate in mathematics education - even though she initially struggled with the language barrier.
“It took someone that believed in me,” Sorto said. “It takes that kind of mentoring. Someone that you trust and cares for you.”
Despite the difficulties of being a Latina in STEM, especially if they doubt their own abilities or are told they do not belong, Sorto encourages her students to move forward.
“Believe me, there are people who look at you in a different way and give opportunities to show your brilliance, your resilience, your strength and someone will notice,” Sorto said.
Dr. Diana Martinez Dolan, an assistant professor in the St. David’s School of Nursing who specializes in nursing faculty retention, said she struggled during her first year of being a researcher at Texas State. Dolan experienced imposter syndrome, thinking she was not good enough to be a professor. She felt alone, but development opportunities specifically for women through the LBJ Institute and a connection with other females like Ortiz helped motivate her.
“There are just all these preconceptions and just things like that that you go through as an older graduate, as a female, as a minority,” Dolan said. “She gave me a reason to go above what I’ve been told.”
After Dolan met Ortiz and the community at the LBJ Institute, Dolan realized that many of her colleagues had similar feelings of being Latina in the STEM workplace. Dolan understands it can be difficult to be a Latina in STEM, but she wants students to know that they are not alone.
“This is the time to express yourself, to be what you are here and meant to be without being apologetic about it,” Dolan said. “Own your space. Own where your feet are. Own who you are, and follow your bliss.”
STEM Education that is Culturally Responsive
By Daniela Carrera
When it comes to inspiring diverse student audiences to pursue careers in STEM, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why The LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research at Texas State University and its NASA Engagement and Educator Professional Development Collaborative provide NASA resources with culturally responsive pedagogy to educators across the country.
The goal of an initiative like this is to make teaching and learning relative and responsive to the students’ cultural practices within the context of current events. EPDC specialists create lessons and activities and host events that take into account the backgrounds of the participants.
Dr. Araceli Ortiz, the Institute’s executive director, said historically underrepresented communities in STEM – African-Americans, LatinX, Native Americans and women - have experienced institutional and racial roadblocks that have caused fewer of them to have an interest in STEM.
“What I think makes a difference is to reach early on, to get to communities, to inspire one parent or a set of educators or one child that they can break free and they can have many more opportunities,” Ortiz said.
The challenges students face should be understood in order to produce materials and programs that are appropriate for each community, Ortiz said. Bringing in the culture, involving others and valuing what people experience is what the LBJ Institute’s programs incorporate - so students can better understand STEM concepts.
Dr. Samuel Garcia, an EPDC specialist at the Kennedy Space Center, said teachers cannot teach all students the same in our multicultural society. Different students have different experiences, so the way students are taught should reflect that.
Garcia invites educators to consider the cultural dimensions of teaching and learning during his professional development activities and presentations. This is done by posing reflective questions, conducting group discussions and including STEM educational inequality statistics. Spanish language educational videos are also developed to connect NASA subject matter to Spanish-speaking students and educators.
“We want to try to reach the communities, the spaces, the districts, the teachers, the students who have not historically had access to rich learning experiences and connections to STEM,” Garcia said. “The heart and soul of the EPDC is that we serve those communities and those individuals that have been left out for so long.”
The LBJ Institute aims to inspire students who have historically been underserved with STEM education that anyone can go into a STEM career. Dr. Vemitra White, an EPDC specialist at the Marshall Space Flight Center, said she was not made aware of the resources and opportunities that existed while she was growing up in Mississippi.
“It was never my dream to work at NASA - I just didn’t know that I could,” White said. “I didn’t know that there were so many opportunities at these different facilities, but that’s because of the lack of resources in my community.”
White uses culturally relevant strategies when presenting STEM content and activities to students. She wants students to see that the LBJ Institute has resources to help teach STEM
content so they can gain interest in STEM careers.
Like White experienced, many students may not be aware they can work at NASA. To demonstrate it is possible, she provides personal stories to connect with students on a deeper level.
“Get rid of the misconception that they can’t,” White said. “Once you get past, ‘I can’t’ and start believing that you can, then you’ve got to figure out what resources there are out there to help.”
NASA EPDC content - digital badging, webinars and conferences where educators, caregivers and students can learn STEM concepts and activities - is offered free of charge on the EPDC website.
Importance of Continuous Experiences in Motivating Early Career Awareness in STEM
by Daniella Carrera
As an English-language learner growing up in Detroit, Dr. Araceli Ortiz was not surrounded by people with careers in STEM. Ortiz did not know about the career possibilities STEM offered until she participated in a pre-engineering program in middle school. That camp introduced her to careers she could pursue in STEM, leading her to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering and engineering education.
Now, as the executive director of the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research at Texas State University, Ortiz and her team research and run programs focused on introducing historically underrepresented populations to STEM careers. Underrepresented populations in science and engineering occupations include LatinX, African Americans and Native Americans, as well as women. LatinX individuals compose 6% of the science and engineering occupations. African-Americans make up 5% of those same jobs. For Native Americans, the number drops to 0.2%.
"I know from a personal point of view that just knowing about additional careers can be something that is life changing,” Ortiz said.
This work at the LBJ Institute has introduced NASA STEM materials and activities into the lives of underserved populations. One such program was the Future Aerospace-Engineers and Mathematicians Academy (FAMA), which began in 2013 and continued with funding from NASA. Activities for students included NASA STEM Saturdays, FAMA Summer Camps and the FAMA Backpack Program.
Diego Quintanilla, a high school junior from San Marcos, participated in the FAMA Summer Camp for four years. That was where Quintanilla realized he enjoyed building things, so he wanted to continue learning about STEM.
“Whenever we started doing the little projects inside of those camps and building things like that, it made me feel good,” Quintanilla said. “It helped my creative side come out, so I joined the robotics team at school.”
After being introduced to STEM through the FAMA Summer Camp, Quintanilla also participated in the LBJ High School Virtual Internship 2020 Summer Program through the LBJ Institute, where he had the ability to learn from NASA content. Now that he knows about STEM and the career opportunities available, Quintanilla wants to become a mechanical engineer.
This type of early career awareness in STEM serves to prepare students for STEM opportunities, explained Barbie Buckner, a specialist with the NASA Engagement and Educator Professional Development Collaborative (EPDC). Buckner said it’s key to introduce students early to STEM.
“They say the first person to step on Mars is in middle school right now,” Buckner said. “If we don’t talk to that kid and let them know ‘Hey, this opportunity is coming,’ how will they ever know?”
Texas State Bilingual Teaching Students Adapting and Translating NASA Lessons to Create NASA Summer Camp in a Box
by Daniella Carrera
Despite the inability to hold traditional engineering camps due to COVID-19, the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research still provided an opportunity for communities that have historically been underrepresented in STEM to participate in NASA lessons and activities through a program called Camp-in-a-Box.
Bilingual education students and Texas State University played a key role in the program. The boxes were filled with five NASA activities the university students modified to reflect the teaching standards for the recipient’s grade level. The box included instructions and materials needed to complete each activity.
Some activities required online participation, but others involved materials students could find around the home. The teaching students modified activities so they can be completed by students who do not have internet access.
Angie Behnke, a program coordinator with the LBJ Institute, said working with the Texas State students has been fun because of the creativity involved.
“They have these really big ideas,” Behnke said. “One of our girls has the boxes like a mission, and she’s made all these different envelopes. It says do not open until [you have] completed [the] mission.”
Gabriel Vergara Rebollar, one of the Texas State bilingual education teaching students who worked on the project, modified sixth grade NASA activities teaching robotics. He used an activity called Boxing Beans where students built containers of different shapes to learn about surface area and volume. The students also used Scratch coding, a programming language to help children learn to code, to get their digital rover to collect lunar samples. Rebollar said all students cannot be taught the same if you want them all to learn.
“Whether or not they can actually learn it and use it properly comes down to how you teach it,” Rebollar said. “Being able to adjust and modify these lessons and activities becomes very important because there’s no point in teaching what you’re teaching if you can’t get them [students] to understand it or use the concepts.”
Rebollar and his team also translated activities to Spanish to meet the needs of many students and families in San Marcos -- no small task considering the amount of NASA terminology involved in the boxes.
“All these kids are given the same speech on, ‘You can be whatever you want’ - but if the opportunities aren’t there for them, then they have no road map on how to get there,” Robollar said. “With these activities, they can at least experience a small portion of the different things that NASA does because it’s not just space exploration.”
Camp in a Box activities have been sent to families in Texas, Chicago and, most recently, Virginia, in coordination with Virginia Beach’s NAS Oceana Virtual Air Show event.
Learning at Home
by Daniella Carrera
The LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research at Texas State University and its NASA STEM Engagement and Educator Professional Development Collaborative have created several new resources to assist school districts, educators and families with learning in and out of the classroom.
Online learning has led many parents and caregivers to guide learning at home, but they likely do not have traditional training with how to teach STEM materials, explained Michelle Berry, a specialist with the EPDC. One of the new resources is a set of STEM Teaching Tips to serve as a road map for this type of learning.
“So many times parents would come see me at conference time, and the first thing they would say is, ‘Oh my goodness, I could never do what you do.’,” Berry said. “That’s a really common phrase among parents that did not go into the education field. It’s our job to make sure that we provide that comfort and kind of encouragement to parents and caregivers that are in this role.”
The Teaching Tips guide is also available in Spanish to make it easier for more families to complete NASA STEM activities. Samuel Garcia, an EPDC specialist at the Kennedy Space Center, said the Teaching Tips in Spanish were made to ensure everyone has access to quality STEM content.
“A lot of our students are Spanish speaking,” Garcia said. “Spanish is their first language at home, so we try to emphasize and create bilingual content. The mission is that we want to try to reach the communities.”
Another resource, STEM in Action, allows parents and caregivers to submit videos or pictures of their children completing STEM activities being completed in the home. Five submissions will be selected and highlighted online each month through the EPDC website.
Finally, the EPDC developed new Quick-Bit videos to demonstrate specialists working through NASA activities. Susan Kohler, a NASA EPDC specialist with the Glenn Research Center, said the goal is to have parents, caregivers and educators see the activities being completed so viewers can do so themselves at home.
"Every time you expose a student, whether they’re an adult or child, to a new idea, you don’t want to just talk about that idea,” Kohler said. “You want to have them have an experience with the idea.”
Parents and caregivers can use these new online initiatives with NASA content free of charge. Examples of STEM activities that can be completed at home can be found on the NASA EPDC website.
Daniella Carrera is a journalism and mass communication third year student at Texas State University. Previously, Daniella has worked as a news reporter for the University Star. When Daniella is not working, you can find her watching shows on Netflix or Hulu.
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