UTEP, High Schools Build Paths to Science Careers
Last Updated on October 14, 2020 at 12:00 PM
Originally published October 14, 2020
By Daniel Perez
Osvaldo Morera, Ph.D., understands what it is like to be judged by an accent and undervalued by a standardized test. The son of Cuban immigrants also knows the benefits and importance of academic rigor and treating students with respect.
Those are among the reasons that Morera, a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at El Paso, said he was thrilled to be principal investigator of “Project ACE – Action for Equity: A BUILDing SCHOLARS Pipeline.” This five-year, $1.35 million National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Science Education Partnership Award program will attempt to increase the numbers of Latinx students and English Language Learners (ELLs) who attend high schools in economically disadvantaged communities and are prepared and motivated to pursue undergraduate degrees in engineering as well as biomedical and behavioral sciences.
Project ACE will recruit and engage students and teachers from Gadsden, Del Valle and Canutillo high schools with multiple tiers of mentors and a research-focused curriculum. These campuses were selected in part because they have produced among the fewest participants in the University’s BUILDing SCHOLARS program, an NIH-funded research-intensive training opportunity meant to diversify future generations of biomedical investigators.
The research team consists of Morera, Josefina V. “Josie” Tinajero, Ed.D., professor of teacher education, and Thomas Boland, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering. Morera also stressed that this project will be done in collaboration with science teachers and administrators at the three high schools. Each professor has a backstory of overcoming adversity and hopes to provide research participants with the same type of opportunity they received through higher education.
“On behalf of the team, we are excited and humbled to provide this chance to the teachers and students in those communities,” said Morera, who recalled how he was “pulled out” of math classes as a youth for speech therapy.
A 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, “Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” is among the recent research papers that has noted a shortage of talented and innovative candidates for the U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce to include research and development. The Census report documents how Blacks and Latinx populations have consistently been underrepresented in STEM employment.
Morera explained how the research team already had selected two “peer mentor” instructors from the high schools who will help lead the first cohort of six teachers from the three campuses to conduct summer research at UTEP under the guidance of a University faculty member. The University researchers will meet with the cohort during the summer to help them translate their research experiences into lesson plans, which could be published after a peer review at the University of Colorado’s Teach Engineering program.
The cohort also will participate in a series of professional workshops that are modeled after such UTEP programs as BUILDing SCHOLARS, which stands for Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity: Southwest Consortium of Health-Oriented Education Leaders and Research Scholars. By the end of Project ACE, 30 teachers should have gained hands-on research experience.
The program will offer students workshops that promote careers in the biomedical fields and access to tutors for 12 weeks per year. It also will use grant money to create one state-of-the-art biomedical research lab at each participating high school. The exact equipment that will be purchased depends on what each lab needs. The program also will help restock these labs. Select students will participate in research at UTEP in the latter stages of the grant.
Morera said he expected Project ACE to influence almost 300 students at the schools where almost 100% of the student population is Latinx, 80% to 100% are eligible for reduced meal plans, and about 20% are English Language Learners.
“We think we can develop a culture of high academic achievement among students, and better prepare them to pursue degrees in biomedical, behavioral and clinical research fields,” Morera said. “Students at these high schools are just as talented and deserving of opportunities like BUILD, and we want to work with these schools to help these students.”
Collaborations such as this one with UTEP is one of the strategies that Hector Giron, principal of Gadsden High School in Anthony, New Mexico, has implemented to create opportunities for his students. The native of Juárez, Mexico, said these partnerships with academic institutions and external organizations create pathways to higher education and successful futures.
“This NIH grant will provide our students with an opportunity in the biomedical engineering field where Hispanics are underrepresented,” said Giron, a first-generation college student who is completing his doctoral dissertation in educational leadership and foundations at UTEP.
Among the instructors who plan to participate is Ernesto Villanueva, a teacher and chair of the Canutillo High School (CHS) science department. He said that he has been interested in research education since his first days at CHS eight years ago when his lab consisted of little more than a set of beakers. The El Paso native said he has used grants, donations, fundraisers “and serious scavenging” to enhance his lab.
Villanueva, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in biology from UTEP in 2009, said he knows the benefits of a science education learned at a bench. He worked in University research labs as an undergraduate and in a neuroscience research lab at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso after graduation.
“In the few years that I worked in the lab, I realized that I learned more science at the bench than I had learned in the lecture hall,” Villanueva said. “Giving high school students the opportunity to do a level of science most will not see until college would be a huge step in the right direction toward science education, scientific literacy, STEM field recruitment, and college attendance and retention.”
As for his peers, Villanueva said they will benefit from the hands-on research experience. The more teachers know, the better they can explain their material in the simplest, most accessible way, he said.
“The scientific process really opens the floodgates of the mind to better grasp the fundamental principles of the discipline,” Villanueva said. “To best do our job, we truly need to understand all aspects of our content. Making us better teachers only benefits our students, and giving them the best opportunity to be better prepared for the next level benefits everyone.”