UTRGV’S College of Sciences was recently awarded a grant for its project, “Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM Through Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Community Engagement,” from the National Science Foundation.

The NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Program award to UTRGV was one of 31 issued to other Hispanic-serving institutions that proposed research focusing on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

UTRGV’s project will support the aims of the HSI program by enhancing undergraduate STEM education. It will facilitate training for STEM faculty in culturally relevant pedagogy and community engaged scholarship and learning, and will focus on offering high-impact STEM courses that build upon the cultural characteristics of students, families, and the local community, community engagement, and regionally relevant research. Project investigators will examine how these offerings impact student capacity, skills, knowledge, as well as attitudes and perceptions towards science and STEM-related careers.

The $1,480,002 research grant will begin Oct. 1, 2018, and is scheduled to end Sept. 30, 2023.

Investigators for the project are: 

Dr. Alexis Racelis, the grant’s principal investigator; Agroecology and Resilient Food Systems Program director; assistant professor in the UTRGV School for Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences, Department of Biology.

Dr. Angela Chapman, assistant professor of science education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, UTRGV College of Education and P-16 Integration.

Dr. Francisco Guajardo, executive director of B3 Institute and professor in the UTRGV Department of Organization and School Leadership.

Juan Salinas, doctoral candidate, UTRGV Educational Leadership

Cristina Trejo, associate vice president for Community Engagement and Economic Development.

Under the project, trained faculty would offer students the opportunity to take core (“gateway”) courses in math and biology in a Spanish and/or bilingual format.

“It’s a way to invite students to more deeply explore fundamental concepts in math and sciences while recognizing the ability of students to learn in a bilingual modality,” Racelis said. “You’re learning two things at once.”

Racelis said as part of this project the B3 Institute will help explore the possibility of adding a certification to a student’s diploma if they take a certain number of the courses in Spanish within a discipline or degree plan. For instance, if a student took enough biology courses in Spanish, the diploma would show both the degree in biology and a proficiency in biological Spanish. 

Another initiative is to have faculty teach classes under the Community Engaged Scholarship and Learning (CESL) framework, which emphasizes engagement in ongoing community-based projects.

An example of a CESL course might be one centered around Community Forestry, Racelis said. Students in this class would be able to calculate the valuable benefits of trees and research what types of trees would best provide these benefits to local communities. As part of this course, students would work side by side with local community partners to select and plant trees, with the long term goals of both improving the well-being of these communities, and allowing for the study of the benefits and ecosystem services of trees in these settings. UTRGV faculty in math have offered CESL courses, where students are placed in high school settings to examine instructional modalities for teaching difficult math concepts.

“CESL is going to be grounded in public engagement, experiential learning, and applied sciences,” he said. “Students will be better able to understand and appreciate the broader implications of science and math, and will be better prepared to share that understanding with the public who can take these concepts, apply it, and make it happen.”

The overall goal of the project is improve understanding and appreciation for science and math by connecting learning and research with local partners and local culture in ways that relate to their everyday lives and the well-being of their communities.

“We are all excited for the tremendous potential this project has in improving undergraduate STEM education at Hispanic Serving Institutions. Ultimately, this project embodies the UTRGV mission, as it helps us create a transformative and accessible educational environment that promotes student success, research and creative works, and community engagement,” Racelis said.