Center Aims to Increase and Promote Education Research

Last Updated on May 30, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published May 30, 2017

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

The Center for Education Research and Policy Studies (CERPS) in The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education will prepare a new generation of education researchers and promote their work to advance educational policy and practice in the Paso del Norte region and beyond.

The Center for Education Research and Policy Studies
The Center for Education Research and Policy Studies (CERPS) in The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education will prepare a new generation of education researchers and promote their work to advance educational policy and practice in the Paso del Norte region and beyond. Photo by UTEP Communications

CERPS assists faculty members like Christina Convertino, Ph.D., to build upon their skills to conceptualize, write and submit competitive grant proposals.

For two months, Convertino, an assistant professor in education, worked with CERPS Director Elsa Villa, Ph.D., to fine tune a proposal Convertino wrote for a Research in Service to Practice grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  

At Villa’s suggestion, Convertino reached out to Ali Mirchi, Ph.D., an engineering research assistant professor, about collaborating on the project. If funded, the project will look at environmental water issues in colonias in far east El Paso County. Colonias are settlements along the U.S.-Mexico border lacking basic physical infrastructure, such as potable water, sewer systems, electricity and paved roads.

“Because of her role, I would tell (Villa) about a project that I’m interested in or what I’d like to do, and she helps to take these ideas and make them more concrete in terms of saying, ‘Here’s someone you should talk to because they might be interested in working with you,’” said Convertino, who joined UTEP in 2014. 

Villa also offered feedback on the proposal’s budget and summary statement.

“For tenure-track faculty like me, to have this kind of support in terms of getting connected with funding opportunities and also understanding how to build a research agenda at the institution, it’s been really helpful,” Convertino said. 

Since 2016, CERPS has provided resources and services to faculty in the college to develop, conduct and disseminate grant-funded interdisciplinary education research.

“What I would tell junior faculty interested in applying for an NSF grant, or any type of grant, is that we have someone in-house who could evaluate your proposal and offer feedback,” said David S. Knight, Ph.D., CERPS associate director. “This is one of the advantages of having this center in the college.”

The center also publishes quarterly policy briefs on topics such as Texas school finance reform, dual language education, local and regional educator labor markets, and programs and policies that address the needs of historically underserved students.

“We help with brainstorming grant ideas, locating funding opportunities and fine tuning proposals for faculty who need that assistance,” said Villa, who has been writing successful grant proposals since she was hired as director of UTEP’s Engineering Programs Office in 1994.

Since then, Villa, who also is a research assistant professor in UTEP’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, has secured funding for several multidisciplinary STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) projects from private foundations and state and federal agencies, including Hewlett-Packard, the NSF and the U.S. Department of Education.

Most recently, Villa was awarded a grant through CERPS from the U.S. Department of Education to develop evidence-based learning communities in STEM courses. The project involves faculty from the UTEP colleges of Education, Science and Engineering.

When the time came to hire a director for the new center, Villa was a good choice, said College of Education Dean Cyndi Giorgis, Ph.D.

“The focus of the center is to encourage the proliferation of research focused on issues related to education in the Paso del Norte region and to help faculty develop grant proposals,” Giorgis said. “Dr. Villa has a long history of being successful in securing external funding. She works with faculty to write their proposals and identify funding sources. Faculty are strongly encouraged to go through the center.”

CERPS also provides administrative support for the college’s $5.5 million research and service grants.

Since April 2017, researchers who have used CERPS services have successfully secured more than $1 million in grants from the NSF.

They include Alberto Esquinca, Ph.D., associate professor of bilingual education, and Knight.

Esquinca received a $456,076 grant to study persistence in and beyond undergraduate engineering studies among Latinx students. Knight was awarded $589,407 to assess the impact of Texas STEM academies on students' learning environments, educational outcomes, and career path decisions.

Knight will lead the three-year project with co-principal investigators David J. Carrejo, Ph.D., and Stephen Kotok, Ph.D.

The project also will help CERPS’ efforts to build capacity for data-intensive research in education policy in the College of Education. 

“Our hope is to build a community of scholars conducting education policy research, provide training and mentoring to a team of graduate research assistants, and to gain permanent access to the state’s longitudinal student-level education datasets and expand their use to researchers across the UTEP campus,” Knight said.

CERPS also provides researchers an outlet to promote their studies through education policy briefs and working papers published on the center’s website. The goal of the policy briefs is to help educators, administrators and policymakers make better-informed decisions about the region’s education programs, policies and practices based on research.

“Faculty who are doing policy-related work in education can summarize their work into a policy brief and make it available to superintendents, local and state representatives and the Texas Education Agency, which can help our research make an impact in schools,” said Knight, who has written policy briefs on school finance equity in Texas, bilingual education, and the Trump administration’s effect on federal education policy. He has also written op-eds based on these policy briefs in the Texas Tribune and the El Paso Inc.

In its short time, CERPS has raised awareness about the research being done in the college and the potential impact it can have on education in the region.

“And that’s really the end goal of research,” Villa said. “It’s to make change for the better.”