Getting more school students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) fields is increasingly important, and engaging Hispanic students in those fields can be a challenge. It helps for those students to have Hispanic teachers who can serve as role models. The Academy for Teacher Excellence (ATE) at the University of Texas-San Antonio has taken on that challenge, and under the guidance of Dr. Belinda Bustos Flores, its principal investigator, and Dr. Lorena Claeys, its executive director, the academy has built a ten-year track record of training teachers to teach STEM courses.
Flores says one of the first challenges is just making Hispanic students aware of the possibilities in STEM fields because they’re not exposed to them at home. But with a little imagination, even routine home activities can translate into an interest in science, or engineering.
“Let’s say a child is constantly taking things apart and putting them back together,” said Flores. Their parents might be amused at the child’s interest, but Flores puts another spin on it.
“Not everybody can do this,” she said. “If your child has an interest in building things, or in trying to fix things, those children should be encouraged to do engineering.”
Better yet, if the child can build things, that demonstrates the ability to think in the abstract, a quality important to succeed in mathematics. “Building things is what engineering does,” Flores said. “And working with the hands is nothing new among the Latino population.”
The Academy for Teacher Excellence works with seven elementary and two middle schools in San Antonio to develop after-school robotics clubs. Students get lots of opportunities to do hands-on work by building, programming, and controlling robots, and then enter them in competition against other schools.
The robotics clubs are assisted by “teaching candidates” in the Academy for Teacher Excellence. These are undergraduate students who might be working toward a degree in one of the STEM areas. In fact, they might not be planning a teaching career at all. They get some training before being sent out to the schools, and Flores says they often come back and share how rewarding the experience had been.
“Some of the engineering majors, now they’re seeing things differently,” said Flores. “They’re appreciating more the lives of the children.”
Even if the candidates don’t enter the teaching ranks, there is evidence the program has made an impact.
“One of the comments that one of them made was, ‘I don’t know how exactly, but when I become an engineer, I want to work with people,’” Claeys said. “Their paradigm is shifting.”
Some do decide to enter teaching. “We’ve had a number that have been teacher of the year,” Flores said. Others have gone on to be school principals. Since the Academy began in 2003, some two-thousand undergraduates have gone through it, Claeys said. Another 200 have taken the accelerated teacher preparation program. That program prepares adults with degrees in the STEM fields to get certified as teachers.
The ATE cooperates with Northwest Vista College, a community college in San Antonio with a student body more than 50 percent Hispanic, to help prospective teachers make the transition to a four-year university and a bachelor’s degree. Flores says the goal is to build a model of collaboration between UTSA and the community college to ensure that Hispanics and other low-income students are college-ready and can graduate with a degree from UTSA.
It’s an “absolute priority” for ATE to entice Hispanic students who have not yet declared a major to enroll in a STEM teacher preparation program and be certified to teach a STEM related area in campuses with high concentrations of Hispanic students.
Furthermore, ATE prepares the new teachers to use what Flores calls “culturally efficacious” methods to reach Hispanic children.
One initiative that has caught on is the Nepo Project, another after-school club, where elementary school students are taught the ins and outs of the Nepo, an abacus-like device worn as a bracelet by the Mayans in Pre-Columbian times. Although the Mayans used a base 20 mathematics system (10 fingers, 10 toes), children are taught to use the Nepo in our base 10 system.
“It’s a little calculator,” said Claeys, “talk about mobile technology, there it is. Technology that people were engaged with, and technology that’s still relevant today, that can still be used to teach math for kids.”
The Nepo can be used to teach addition, subtraction, basic multiplication, square roots – even algebraic equations, Claeys said. “This approach is very integrated, where you use mathematics in your everyday life.” Next fall, the Nepo project will be expanded to several elementary schools.
Flores added, “Everything we’ve done is purposeful, and to help people connect to math and science in ways that honors their culture and honors their knowledge but extends that.”
Flores thinks it’s very important for students to adapt to changes, which will inevitably come. “Exposing all children to different realms of possibilities, to me that’s very important,” she said. “That’s our future, that’s our future challenge, not to stagnate.”
She’s concerned that in today’s test-driven educational environment, children aren’t given enough opportunity to be creative. “Thinking for yourself is very key and very important for our future, to propel, not just to be emulating what has already been done,” she said.