Undergrad to Present Research on ‘the Hill’

By Jennifer Clampet

UTEP News Service

Leslie Luna de Lara has a few things to say about undergraduate research. And the first people she plans to tell are her United States congressional representatives.

The senior biology major and pre-med student at The University of Texas at El Paso will present undergraduate research findings during the 16th annual Posters on the Hill event April 24 in Washington, D.C.Leslie Luna de LaraLeslie Luna de Lara

Luna de Lara is the first student from UTEP to be invited to the prestigious event.

“I’m very, very nervous,” she said. “I hope I can make a good impression and really convey what the research has shown – that we’re doing really good things here (at UTEP).”

Hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), Posters on the Hill is designed to help members of Congress understand the importance of undergraduate research by talking directly with the students whom these programs impact.

“This will be the first time that a UTEP student steps foot on the hill to present undergraduate work,” said Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives at UTEP. “It could have a big impact on the visibility of the university. This is an opportunity for UTEP to demonstrate to our congressmen the great things we are doing to train our undergraduate students.”

Luna de Lara is one of several peer leaders who work on the undergraduate research project Peer-Led Team Learning. PLTL is a 12-year research project under James Becvar, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at UTEP. The project was recognized in 2006 with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board STAR Award.

Becvar has also received recognition for this PLTL work at UTEP. He was selected as a Minnie Stevens Piper Professor in 2008 and received a Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award from The University of Texas System in August 2009.

The PLTL project focuses on the impact of peer-led workshops facilitating student learning in large sections of introductory science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses such as Chemistry 1305 and Chemistry 1306 – gateways to STEM degree courses. The peer-led workshops integrate collaborative, active learning strategies to strengthen student understanding of chemical principles.

“As a freshman walking into a 200-student class is intimidating. Peer leaders offer you that halfway point. It’s a very comforting setting as a freshman. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions,” Luna de Lara said.

Since the implementation of the workshops at UTEP in 2000, the C-or-better passing rate for first-time takers of the first general chemistry course has improved from the historic average near 55 percent to the current rate near 70 percent. Having been used from 2000 to the present, these numbers translate to more than 1,000 additional students progressing into their science, engineering and mathematics majors.

“The involvement of undergraduates themselves in studying how best to facilitate STEM learning by their younger peers is fundamentally a new approach to promote student comprehension of the course material,” Becvar said.

“The students taking the course love this approach – attested by the research data Leslie has accumulated. The model is somewhat akin to what teachers used in the little one-room school houses in centuries past where the older children helped the younger ones.  The younger students had considerably more time-on-task help with their lessons and the older students benefitted from the review and apprentice-like practice of teaching.”

Founded in 1978, CUR is a national nonprofit educational organization with individual and institutional members representing more than 900 colleges and universities. CUR centers on the concept of faculty members enhancing their teaching and contributions to society by remaining active in research and by involving undergraduates in research. UTEP became an institutional member of CUR in November 2010.

Studies show that undergraduate research is the educational practice with the highest impact on student learning, Echegoyen said. The research gets students involved in generating new knowledge. In the sciences and engineering, it generally includes hands-on learning taking students beyond regular classwork.

“Students involved in undergraduate research are better prepared for graduate school and for joining the global workforce,” Echegoyen said.