UTEP Engineering Professor Duo Awarded $393K NSF Grant

A pair of engineering professors from The University of Texas at El Paso will address the need to develop faculty who are adept at effective teaching strategies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields through a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Benjamin Flores, Ph.D., professor and director of The University of Texas System Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, was named the principal investigator of the NSF award worth $393,601 with co-PI Heidi Taboada-Jimenez, Ph.D., associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering.

The duo will work on the effort, which is part of a broader NSF initiative — the Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) program.

“We are grateful and thrilled to be selected as recipients of this National Science Foundation grant,” Flores said. “From what we have seen, there is a need to develop future faculty who are well-trained in teaching strategies that can positively impact undergraduate students enrolled in community colleges. What we plan to do is to implement a sustainable program to make graduate students keenly aware of career opportunities at community colleges. Many of our graduate students have a passion for teaching and we want to provide guidance for that passion. So, if they do decide to pursue careers at community colleges, they will have the right tools to hit the ground running.”

Flores and Taboada-Jimenez will use the five-year grant to harness an already existing network dedicated to promoting best practices in teaching. The pair will work closely with The University of Texas at Arlington in the formation of two regional cooperatives (RCs) in Texas.

Through the RCs, graduate students will be paired with professors to form a mentor-protégé team that exposes students to best practices in teaching and its applications at the college level.

Flores said he hopes this effort will eventually result in a faculty that better reflects the diverse student populations that begin their higher education journeys at community colleges.

“We know that a majority of Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans and other minority groups that decide to pursue higher education are starting that journey at community colleges,” Flores said. “It becomes clear to us that we need to ensure we have a full understanding of their challenges as students. One of the historical roadblocks is that the educational system doesn’t necessarily consider the diversity of our STEM population background that impacts their success. We want to make sure that our graduate students who are thinking about academic careers learn the best teaching practices, developed and tested over time.”

Flores said that over time, the hiring of a more diverse and well-prepared teaching faculty will improve science and math community college courses and curricula, bolstering their compatibility with four-year programs.

“We’re looking forward to working with our collaborators,” Flores said. “We have at least six community colleges, including El Paso Community College, which we are reaching out to throughout the state. Our joint efforts are really going to make the difference.”