Texas State and NASA partner to bring STEM education to underrepresented populations
Sandy Pantlik | March 29, 2019
As news of an all-female NASA spacewalk reached fever pitch over the last several weeks, Dr. Araceli Martinez Ortiz, executive director of the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research and associate research professor of engineering education at Texas State University, looked forward to the day when women astronauts were no longer newsworthy. In fact, she has made it her life’s work to make it the norm.
“My career experience is equally balanced as an industrial engineer and now as an engineering education researcher,” Ortiz explained. “I have always focused on understanding what systemic challenges exist as we prepare and teach engineering students to achieve, and have considered solutions that including institutional approaches, such as creating a welcoming environment for students and working on understanding identity development for the engineer. Women entering the field are historically underrepresented, as are many other minority populations. There are psychological and social barriers that make it difficult for women to remain in STEM fields. They often feel that they don’t belong because they don’t have the support they need. My job is to discover and implement interventions that mitigate these barriers.”
In 2014, Texas State’s LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research was awarded a $15 million grant to provide headquarters and coordination for the NASA Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Educator Professional Development Collaborative (EPDC). Ortiz is the principle investigator for the grant and its executive director. Now in its fifth year, the project continues its commitment of training new STEM educators and supporting interested STEM teacher in the workforce.
One important element that Ortiz and her team prioritize is the work with K-12 educators that helps them understand the importance of leveraging different kinds of experiences to connect women and underrepresented populations to math, science and eventually engineering. In elementary school, Ortiz says boys and girls share an equal amount of enthusiasm for math and science. But by the time girls participate in those subjects in middle school and high school, they receive societal messages and face institutional systems that may not support their interest or talents in STEM. Ortiz and Texas State are working with NASA to find a remedy.
“We work to leverage NASA resources and then deliver those resources to educators across the country and their students. The partnership with NASA has been incredible. We can host tours and work sessions at NASA research centers for teachers, share existing lesson plans, design and deliver STEM education online courses, and connect with interested organizations and individuals that want to come together to improve STEM outcomes for all students. Working with teachers provides a tremendous multiplier effect - one teacher can reach hundreds of students. And, strong educators can also conduct research. NASA recognizes this is a very effective way to invest its funding and resources,” Ortiz says.
Since the program’s inception, more than 150,000 U.S. educators have been served and the program is expected to reach more than 180,000 by the end of 2019. More than 1,000 onsite and virtual events have been hosted for educators and their students. Ortiz says NASA is now shifting efforts to provide a more direct focus on students, especially in communities that are underrepresented in STEM. Texas State University’s EPDC is ready to support STEM engagement priorities, exemplifying this during Texas State’s Innovation Common Experience- which featured NASA week when astronaut José Hernández and the entire EPDC organization hosted a day of space-based seminars involving and motivating hundreds of Texas State University students.
Apart from NASA STEM EPDC, Ortiz and her team at Texas State have worked across disciplines and departments to create a program that supports college students majoring in the physical sciences and engineering. Texas State Rising Stars brings several interventions into play that Ortiz has shown to be best practices through her work with STEM education.
“Of course, our team implemented academic support to benefit students, such as early and integrated tutoring [Supplemental Instruction], expansion of the Learning Assistant program and delivered workshops to develop visual-spatial reasoning skills. But, we also found ways to reorganize how we teach. Maybe it’s integrating more case studies to bring in context that is more relevant to diverse student groups, or using active learning instructional methods with small groups to give students more opportunities to share and communicate with their professors and classmates. We found it important to utilize a ‘high-touch approach’ to keep underrepresented populations engaged in the sciences and on their chosen career path,” Ortiz said.
The approach is working for Texas State. From 2012 to 2018, Hispanic and African American students represented in five STEM majors (mathematics, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering and engineering technology) at the university grew from 32 percent to 46 percent. Graduation rates in STEM bachelor’s degrees for Hispanic and African American students increased from 27.7 percent to 37.6 percent, and the number of women in STEM majors increased from 22.6 percent to 25.2 percent.
Ortiz’s work has shown that intervention practices to address some of the issues facing women and underrepresented populations in STEM can be key to keeping them engaged.
“There is not just one factor responsible for the success of this progress. It involves so many faculty leading different strategies across the university with partnerships between the College of Education and the College of Science and Engineering. We were hoping for slight increases, but these changes are incredible and speak to the importance of a unified effort to provide interventions that work to benefit the students. These are the types of interventions that ultimately result in having enough qualified, exceptional outstanding women engineers who can be astronauts. It means the percentage of women in engineering and at NASA who are qualified to do this work will continue to grow,” Ortiz said.
Texas State has two other awards with NASA in its education and STEM engagement focus areas. The Future Aerospace-Engineers and Mathematicians Academy (FAMA) started four years ago in San Marcos and has expanded to surrounding areas. FAMA Academy offers multi-week programs on Saturdays or in the summer for elementary students. The NASA Backpack program that the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research manages in several schools works with teachers to provide students with NASA educational materials.
Unfortunately, the all-woman spacewalk was canceled when astronaut Anne McClain had to be replaced by a man who could wear the large, flight-ready suit that was too big for her. That development didn’t hamper Ortiz’s enthusiasm for creating a level playing-field for all who pursue a degree and careers in STEM.
“An important part of NASA’s mission is to inspire the public through education. At Texas State, we are proud to help accomplish that goal while ensuring that women and other underrepresented populations have a place not only in space, but in the STEM career of their dreams,” Ortiz said.