Originally published November 20, 2015
By Daniel Perez
Richard Alfaro-Diaz had an interest in science in high school, but lamented that no one there inspired him to pursue his academic dreams. When given the opportunity to go back to high school, the UTEP doctoral student jumped at the chance.
“I was so excited,” Alfaro-Diaz said minutes before taking the stage during a Nov. 13, 2015, ceremony in UTEP’s University Cinema. The ceremony would close out the last cohort of The University of Texas at El Paso’s Scientist in Residence program, funded by the National Science Foundation. “I wanted to inspire those students. I wanted to encourage them and let them know they can make an impact locally and around the world.”
Alfaro-Diaz, a geophysics doctoral student, was among the six UTEP graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – fields to be selected as a GK-12 Fellow. The fellows were embedded as science educators in the region’s early college high schools. A side benefit to their mission was to review and enhance the way they talk about their research to make it more accessible to non-scientists.
The NSF approved a $3 million grant to UTEP in 2010 to start the program where the fellows would serve as a resource to the teachers and a role model and mentor to the students as they built a practical understanding of science. The goal also was for the fellows to serve as a bridge between the early college high schools and the University. The fellows said they were able to build on the existing interest in STEM and inspire career choices.
Aaron Velasco, Ph.D., professor of geological sciences, said the program was created as a training module to enhance the communication skills of STEM graduate students. He said he was pleased with the growth in their ability to handle additional responsibilities such as organizing and executing small projects.
Velasco’s co-principal investigators are Vanessa Lougheed, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, and William Robertson, Ph.D., associate professor of teacher education. Velasco also praised his collaborators at the early college high schools (ECHS) for their support.
“They were tremendous,” Velasco said of his ECHS partners. “Having an expert on campus is a unique experience. The fellows had an impact on how the teachers taught. I’ve been teaching for 13 years and they impacted how I teach.”
Sarah Welsh, a chemistry teacher at Valle Verde Early College High School, said she enjoyed the experience of working with UTEP graduate students including Alfaro-Diaz. She said the fellows worked 10 hours a week at their respective campuses and related their research to her chemistry courses.
Welsh and about 250 ECHS students were at UTEP to see their scientists in residence explain their research, often in their state-of-the-art labs. She lauded the fellows, who were often young, Hispanic and female, for their ability to relate to her students.
“(The fellows) were able to open students’ eyes to what they can study after high school,” said Welsh, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UTEP in 1996. “I loved this program.”
Yvette Pereyra, who is pursuing her master’s degree in geological sciences, said her work as a fellow forced her to come out of her shell. She said the experience at Mission ECHS enhanced her communication skills. It also put her more at ease in front of a crowd.
The Union Cinema event concluded with a few words from University President Diana Natalicio, who encouraged the high school students to pursue their education.
“You can do anything with an education,” President Natalicio said. “It will take you anywhere and allow you to do anything. Invest in it now. Don’t squander the opportunity. You guys are on the fast track through your early college high school. The faster you get your education, the more likely it is that you will get great opportunities.”
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