NSF Grant Helps Teach Teachers

By Daniel Perez

A small cadre of graduate students from The University of Texas at El Paso is part of a five-year National Science Foundation program with a goal to improve the students’ abilities to communicate their research by having them teach in area high schools. 

Ten UTEP students – mostly doctoral candidates – are the second group to be involved in this $2.9 million program that began in 2010. They work with science teachers at El Paso’s five early college high schools (ECHS), which promote studies in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

GK-12 Fellows from UTEP work with science teachers at El Paso's early college high schools.GK-12 Fellows from UTEP work with science teachers at El Paso's early college high schools.

The students, who are called “Scientists in Residence,” model the use of the scientific method with the ECHS students, facilitate laboratory experiments, and discuss their own research as a way to encourage the study of biology, chemistry, geology and computer science.

The opportunity to teach is what attracted Sandra Villarreal to the program. She earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science in 2008 from UTEP and said she expected to receive her doctoral degree in biology in May.

Villarreal said she has enjoyed implementing teaching techniques and methods designed to engage the students at Mission Early College High School. She has shared her experiences as a student researcher who has studied changes in Arctic vegetation and its impact on global warming as part of a UTEP team that visited Antarctica in 2007.

“I talk with them about my travels and the conferences,” Villarreal said. “I let them know about all the opportunities out there.”

UTEP’s students, or GK-12 Fellows, have helped the ECHS teachers step back and examine their effectiveness, said Sarah Welsh, science department chair at the Valle Verde Early College High School. This is her second year in the program.

She said the experience helped her recognize the value of incorporating inquiry-based mini-projects and science fair-style projects into her curriculum to help students become better thinkers through the use of the scientific method.

“Together, we help students develop their questioning skills and their abilities to test their hypotheses,” said Welsh, a UTEP graduate student who earned her Bachelor of Science from the University in 1996. She said she expects to receive her Master of Education – Instructional Specialist in Science this spring.

Welsh added that the UTEP GK-12 Fellows with whom she has worked have been “excellent” role models for her students. Several students have told her that they may change their major to a particular science after having worked with the University representatives.

While the ECHS students benefit from the program, the focus is the personal and professional development of the scientists in residence, said Bill Robertson, Ph.D., associate provost at UTEP, who is one of the program’s co-principal investigators along with Vanessa Lougheed, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences. The principal investigator is Aaron Velasco, Ph.D., professor of geological sciences, and the program coordinator is Cindy Ramirez.

The program is open to all graduate students, but the focus is on doctoral students. Applications for the GK-12 program for the 2012-13 academic year will be reviewed starting March 12. Students earn $30,000 to help the ECHS teachers 10 hours in class each week and with five hours of planning and preparation.

Students selected last year to be in the program spent a week with Lougheed, Ramirez, Robertson, Velasco and ECHS science teachers at UTEP’s Indio Ranch Research Station located about 26 miles southwest of Van Horn, Texas. The summer institute allowed the group to match up interests and needs as well as develop concepts that can be used to promote science during the upcoming year. Most, if not all of the projects deal with sustainable energy.

“There is a lot of data collection and analysis,” Robertson said. “They investigate the practicality of implementing the scientific method in the context of the desert Southwest.” 

Lastly, the program hopes to dispel myths about scientists by introducing a diverse, youthful, and energetic group of multicultural researchers into the ECHS classrooms.

“Our goal is to make science understandable for the kids and give them a realistic view of modern science,” Robertson said. “It’s a good deal for the UTEP and ECHS students.”

For application information, contact Ramirez at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 915-747-5424.