Samantha Martinez liked the concept of chemistry before she knew what it was. When visiting her grandmother as a youngster, she would head to the bathroom to mix different cleaning products with the hope that it would produce a chemical reaction.
That enthusiasm and curiosity only escalated as she matured. It got to the point where she wanted to share that love for science. The first-generation college student earned her bachelor’s degree in biology with a biomedical concentration in 2015 from The University of Texas at El Paso and became a science/chemistry teacher at Socorro High School in El Paso’s Lower Valley.
Martinez, a Master of Arts in Education student at UTEP, said she found success in her 10th–grade classroom using hands-on activities to introduce concepts with real-world implications. One example was letting her students make pancakes so they could see the chemical reactions of the batter and after they pour the batter onto a hot skillet. Which ingredients provide structure? Which create fluffiness? How does the batter react to the heat? Instructive, yes, but the students mostly enjoy the taste testing.
“That’s the kind of thing that grabs their attention,” Martinez said. “That’s what makes them want to explore.”
The native El Pasoan went back to school this summer to find other ways to bring science to life for her students. She and two other UTEP peers – Chelsea Lucas, a Master of Arts in Education student, and Alejandra Campa, a senior interdisciplinary studies major with a concentration in 4-8 bilingual generalist – spent an intensive week as part of the third annual NASA Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) Educators Institute at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The gathering, conducted June 4-8, 2018, is a professional development opportunity that gives science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educators ideas on how to integrate hands-on, low-cost science concepts into the common core curricula. It involved about 50 individuals from higher education institutions in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. NASA conducts similar regional institutes at its centers throughout the country.
“The experience was amazing,” Martinez said. “It was so positive. I am grateful to have gone. I loved every part of it. I am so much more confident now. I think I can engage my students with some aluminum foil and paper cups.”
The week also included behind-the-scenes facility tours of mockups of the International Space Station to include one in a 60-foot deep indoor pool used to simulate weightlessness, and lectures by engineers involved with projects dating back to the Apollo moon missions in the early 1970s.
NASA, founded in 1958, has conducted manned and unmanned space missions through the years. Today, one of the agency’s deep space manned initiatives is Orion, which should start in 2030. One of the reasons NASA promotes science education is because many of the engineers, scientists, designers, mathematicians and more who will work on Orion are in middle school.
“Part of our jobs as STEM educators are to engage and encourage (PreK-12 students) to pursue degrees in STEM,” said Ruby Lynch-Arroyo, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of teacher education, who also attended the institute as a faculty sponsor and facilitator. “But we also learned about how many other fields are tied to spaceflight such as art, economics, political science and marine biology.”
Lynch-Arroyo, who has integrated cross-curricular connections as a teacher for many years, said she would include the strategic thinking and planning that she learned in Houston as part of a professional development training with STEM teachers in the Canutillo Independent School District in August before the fall 2018 semester begins.
The UTEP students were bright and engaging, said Steven C. Smith, a NASA EPDC (Educator Professional Development Collaborative) specialist. He added that he mistook one student for a faculty member because of her confidence and participation in discussions and activities.
Smith said the MUREP institute introduces participants to a repository of NASA educational resources and helps them envision how that STEM content can be relevant to students in ways that will excite and inspire them.
“We know that the feet that leave the first footprints on Mars are probably going to be sitting in a middle school classroom this year,” Smith said. “We are looking for the teachers that will find those feet in their classes, inspire them, and set them on the course that will lead them to us.”
NASA awards multiyear research grants to minority-serving institutions to involve their students in MUREP activities. The program provides internships, scholarships, fellowships, mentoring and tutoring for underserved and underrepresented learners in K-12, informal, and higher education settings. The hope is that participants will help build a diverse pool of future NASA employees.
Smith invited STEM educators to use the NASA resources for teachers and students. Click here to find downloadable posters, images, activities, art resources and more. Educators also may look there for internship and scholarship opportunities. Make sure to click the “NASA Audiences” tab.
Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications