By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
Editor’s note: This is the seventh story in a series highlighting a few of the interdisciplinary research projects at UTEP making an impact in the community, across the region and around the globe.
A dozen or so middle school students busily worked on reports that would accompany their water research as their ecosystems created from mud, clay, pebbles and wood chips sat in clear plastic terrariums perched on nearby windowsills.
The casual mood inside the second floor classroom of La Fe Preparatory School, 616 E. Father Rahm Ave., belied the intense interest each student had in their project – and that was fine with The University of Texas at El Paso researchers who hoped to build interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.
The work done during the La Fe summer camp in July was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that studied ways to enhance the education process and generate curiosity among students from underrepresented segments – women and Latinos – in STEM fields.
In this case, the effort seems to have worked, said Jacquelyn Moreno, a La Fe middle school science teacher who earned her bachelor’s degree in education from UTEP in 2012. She praised the multifaceted curriculum, which was developed by UTEP graduate students, for its hands-on approach. The students dealt with microorganisms, real world pollution of waterways, and were asked to develop and promote solutions.
“They were hard to engage, but now they take pride in their work,” Moreno said. “Now they’re perfectionists. I’ve learned so much myself.”
Those students were among the 200 or so La Fe Pre-K to 7 campers who were part of interdisciplinary research this summer that involved UTEP faculty members from the colleges of education and engineering. The La Fe teachers considered it professional development.
The NSF Broadening Participation Research is directed by Ann Gates, Ph.D., chairman of UTEP’s computer science department, director of the University’s Cyber-ShARE Center, and the project’s principal investigator.
Gates said the study will gauge the effectiveness of applying culturally relevant, immersive technologies to STEM-based learning modules that improve Latino middle school students’ performance in STEM and motivate them to study STEM topics.
She said her team is working to extend a role-play exploratory game developed by the Smithsonian Latino Center called Mi Tierra Mi Mundo (My Land My World) to include local watershed issues.
“I had hoped that the Cyber-ShARE Center could contribute to K-12 efforts that impact the number of students who choose to go to college and major in a STEM discipline,” Gates said.
The on-site leaders at La Fe are Daniel Tillman, Ph.D., and Song An, Ph.D., assistant professors of teacher education, and experts in integrating technologies and hands-on activities that engage students in learning and make lessons relevant to them.
Tillman, known for his shaved head, bright smile and passionate personality, explained that the students studied wetlands, xeriscaping, water flow and microorganisms. The focus is on how math and science can be used to solve water issues.
“We wanted it to be fun, but this is not playtime,” Tillman said during a break. His job is to support the teachers, observe and assess what works and what does not and revise the curriculum as part of a three-year program. This was year one. “Oftentimes the way science is taught overwhelms students before it gets to the interesting part.”
He said the curriculum is meant to have students straddle the fence between outside-the-box creativity and the constriction of deadlines to keep them on task.
The water research is tied synergistically if not financially to other UTEP efforts this summer at La Fe. The guiding principle is students cannot understand science unless they know math and students cannot know math unless they can read.
Down the hallway from the water researchers was another group of middle school students who were striking boomwhackers – colorful plastic pipes of different lengths that produce different sounds when they hit a hard surface. Several of them broke into an impromptu version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
The goal is to encourage students to participate in the fun and nonthreatening music activity and slowly introduce math concepts such as fractions and decimals. For example, the teachers explained the setup of an orchestra and then asked students to break up the woodwinds from the strings, brass and percussion. They also experienced how the boomwhackers made different notes depending on the length of the pipe.
Marina Rodriguez, who earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from UTEP in 2012, has been a middle school reading and language arts teacher at La Fe for two years. She said her participation with the math and music curriculum taught her different ways to share her material.
“It gets me excited to design my own curriculum,” she said. “I see excitement in the students. There are no dull moments in class. As the class goes along, the students are curious how we will tie it into math. They’re asking different kinds of questions.”
On the first floor, Josefina V. “Josie” Tinajero, Ed.D., professor of bilingual education and associate vice president for research, and So Jung Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of teacher education, worked with 10 of the schools Pre-K-3 teachers who are integrating music components in their bilingual literacy and language development curriculum.
The students created instruments from inexpensive household items such as guitars made from rubber bands and empty shoeboxes, and maracas made from a few raw pinto beans in a soda can. The music selections are tied to the subject the students are learning, such as the sun.
Tinajero, a renowned international expert in bilingual education, is serving as a mentor to the junior UTEP faculty as well as the La Fe teachers. She, Kim and the teachers tracked the students’ work during a three-week period. Tinajero said she plans to use the data from this experience at a future education conference.
“This is school and they have to learn, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun,” Tinajero said. “You can see the students are more engaged and are enjoying themselves.”