UTEP Alumna Ready to Lead State’s Science Education Leaders

Originally published May 22, 2015

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

The first Latina elected to help lead Texas’ largest group of science education administrators is finishing her doctoral studies at The University of Texas at El Paso, ready to amplify her voice to serve the state’s underrepresented learners.

Cynthia Ontiveros, Ph.D., El Paso Independent School District high school science facilitator, will assume her position as president-elect of the Texas Science Education Leadership Association (TSELA) during the organization’s summer meeting June 21 in Pflugerville, Texas, north of Austin. She will become the organization’s president in 2016 and past-president the next year.

Cynthia Ontiveros recently walked at graduation for her doctorate in Teaching, Learning and Culture that she will earn from The University of Texas at El Paso this summer. Next month, she begins a three-year term as a president of the Texas Science Education Leadership Association. Photo by Daniel Perez / UTEP News Service

Ontiveros walked the stage during UTEP’s afternoon Commencement ceremony May 16 to be acknowledged for her doctorate in Teaching, Learning and Culture, which she will finish this summer. The near-completion of this milestone was among the factors she weighed before agreeing to take on this statewide responsibility.

TSELA was formed in 1979 to provide leadership in the improvement of science education, enhance communication among science education leaders, develop solutions to common issues, and provide professional growth opportunities. Its membership spans directors of Pre-K-12 science programs to higher education faculty.

The administrator said she wants to influence science education through legislation, but also by being a role model to minority science education administrators who make up less than 5 percent of the TSELA’s 700-plus membership. In comparison, Hispanic students make up 50.2 percent of the state’s K-12 students, according to 2013 figures from the Texas Education Agency.

“I want to help others grow as leaders,” said Ontiveros while in an Irvin High School forensic science lab. “I want to talk about diversity and help make a mentor connection so that the percentage of minority science teachers mirrors the student population. I want to help with the necessary and critical transformation of student learning that is necessary for the 21st century. ”

The El Paso native asked to meet at Irvin because of her pride in the school’s focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs and its partnership with UTEP’s Work With A Scientist program. Through the program, students from Irvin, Andress and Chapin high schools work as peers with University faculty researchers. The goal is to encourage students to become STEM majors in college and future STEM professionals.

“I see these students grow in their knowledge of science and their understanding of real-world applications,” said Ontiveros, who was the first in her family to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. “I see them blossom, and that makes me proud.”

The administrator said she has loved science and the exploration of nature since she was a child. Her initial career goal was to become a physician, but fate thought differently.

Ontiveros earned her bachelor’s degree in microbiology with a minor in chemistry from UTEP in 1999. She accepted a job as a science teacher at Riverside High School while she studied for her Medical College Admissions Test. She soon learned that her true calling was in the classroom, where her philosophy was to make the subject relevant to the students.

Ontiveros earned her alternative teaching credential in 2003, the same year Riverside named her its Teacher of the Year, and received her Master’s in Education – Instructional Specialist in Science the next year. She joined TSELA in 2005 and moved to the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) three years later.

Ontiveros said she was impressed with the quality of her fellow TSELA members. Through the years she has worked with them to develop science curriculum and opinions about critical science education issues for state legislators, such as if high school students need three or four years of science. She served as the group’s secretary the past three years during which she listened, learned and prepared herself for the next level of leadership.

Elaine Hampton, Ph.D., retired UTEP associate professor of teacher education and Ontiveros’ dissertation co-chair, said her former pupil has the right mix of attributes to help her succeed at the state level.

“She knows about administration and teaching at multiple levels,” Hampton said. “She is knowledgeable about science and its ramifications to border students. She sees teaching beyond standardized tests toward a richer curriculum, and knows the key (TSELA) people who will help her get things done.”

TSELA officials who know her call her committed, passionate, creative and professional. They praise her for her efforts at EPISD to help Hispanic students reach their full potential in science education.

“Motivating Hispanic students to learn science, to understand the value of scientific literacy, will pay dividends in terms of increased enrollment at the college level and eventually the numbers who choose science-related careers,” said Kevin Fisher, TSELA past-president and secondary science coordinator for Lewisville Independent School District about 25 miles northeast of Dallas.

Kenneth Heydrick, Ed.D., current TSELA president and executive director of the National Science Education Leadership Association, has known Ontiveros for five years and praised her intellect, work ethic, dedication and communication skills. He said she has the vision, knowledge and experience to move the organization forward.

“Science education needs leaders who know the landscape in Texas,” said Heydrick, a research professor in the Ingenuity STEM Center at The University of Texas at Tyler. “In her role as president, Dr. Ontiveros will influence how our leadership improves the teaching and learning of our Texas students.”