As demand in the United States is growing to engage more students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, postsecondary institutions are being challenged to find ways to improve recruiting and retaining students to pursue four-year and graduate degrees in these majors. For around a decade, national data and trends have pointed to gaps in achievement, representation, and interest in STEM across all levels of educational achievement, with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations representing only 6% of the total STEM labor workforce (underrepresented minorities represent 25% of the total population in the United States).
Sul Ross State University (SRSU) in Texas responded to this disparity with its La Frontera Research Initiative (LFRI) for STEM education with offices on all four SRSU campuses in Alpine, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Uvalde. This multidisciplinary program seeks to shift the narrative in two main ways:
- Increase the number of highly qualified secondary-education STEM teachers from underrepresented populations. The students first earn a degree in a STEM major and then a certification in teaching in secondary education. These teachers, who are mentored by faculty members at SRSU, can serve as the gateway for underrepresented students who are considering STEM opportunities and careers.
- Implement and study instructional practices to improve STEM literacy through content-specific, digital pedagogical practices and culturally responsive teaching (CRT). SRSU is located in a vast area in southwest Texas, where a substantial digital literacy skill gap, which presented itself during the COVID-19 pandemic, exists because of accessibility and connectivity issues and lack of devices. In addition, the underrepresented communities SRSU is serving consist mainly of Latinx and Indigenous populations living in rural areas with farms and ranches. Many of them are English language learners and bilingual.
LFRI’s approach was created to better understand how literacy, CRT, and mentoring improve STEM education outcomes through targeted programming designed to increase STEM teaching certifications, the quality of STEM education teaching, and the retention of STEM undergraduates seeking a bachelor’s degree.
The institute is achieving these goals through its Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program and its La Frontera Initiative Mobile Makerspace STEM Lab. The Noyce Scholars en la Frontera (“en la Frontera” is Spanish for “on the Border”) program seeks to increase the number of STEM teachers in school districts on the Texas-Mexico border by 10%. The program awards scholarships and provides mentorship and professional development opportunities, among other benefits. The La Frontera Initiative Mobile Makerspace STEM Lab brings hands-on, informal, digitally enhanced STEM learning experiences to Latinx and Indigenous rural communities, particularly along Texas’ southwest border. Among the topics are renewable energy, agriculture, and climate change, with robotics, drones, and 3D printing, among other technologies, being incorporated in the presentations. Through the scholars program and mobile lab, SRSU has been witnessing an increase in the confidence and excitement of people in underrepresented rural communities to explore STEM disciplines. As LFRI evolves, SRSU plans to analyze and evaluate the institute’s work in educating its teachers in training and advancing CRT and content-specific, digital pedagogical practices. LFRI is seeking to answer the question: How does a CRT and mentoring program influence underrepresented and underserved STEM students in their pursuit of teacher certification from an institution serving isolated communities? SRSU’s strategies and results could be applicable to other higher education institutions that serve isolated regions with a need to improve their CRT approaches and technology integration in their STEM teacher preparation programs, as well as increase their pipeline of STEM teachers in training.
In 2019, SRSU began working on LFRI with the goal of improving STEM education and literacy through a teacher preparation program. A team of faculty members and university deans helped to identify the opportunities through which this concept could be explored and measured.
The team initially developed the Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program that not only supports aspiring teachers in the STEM field but provides faculty development to current teachers in the classroom in underrepresented populations, as well as faculty members at SRSU. The university partnered with Southwest Texas Junior College (SWTJC) in Uvalde to build the teacher pipeline and several school districts, including Alpine, Marfa, Presidio, and Uvalde, to implement the program. These institutions were selected because they all serve high percentages of underrepresented minority communities. The program also received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program—hence the reference to “Noyce” in the SRSU’s program name—which provides scholarships, stipends, and programmatic support to higher education institutions that recruit and prepare students in STEM majors to become teachers. The Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program’s benefits include the following:
- STEM teachers in training may qualify for a scholarship of up to $24,002 a year for two years. A condition of the scholarship is the commitment of the Noyce scholar to teach in a high-need public school for two years within a six-year period after graduation.
- Highly qualified STEM teachers could be eligible for a stipend to mentor a Noyce scholar for two years. The stipend will cover mentor training and participation in the mentoring program.
- Noyce scholars, Noyce mentors, and teachers may participate in professional development programs to improve STEM teaching practices, develop culturally responsive teaching approaches, and incorporate digital learning practices.
- Noyce scholars can collaborate with STEM faculty and high school teachers to encourage students to pursue a career in teaching in a STEM discipline.
- Noyce scholars and SRSU and SWTJC faculty can participate in community STEM events to include STEM Expo.
Knowing that SRSU serves a 400-mile area, the team considered that for LFRI to be more effective, the university would need to adopt a service-oriented approach and literally go into those communities to inform them of STEM literacy opportunities. In these Latinx and Indigenous populations, the majority of students have never seen a 3D printer or drone, still lack access to coding and broadband, and do not have access to quality computers. In response, the La Frontera Initiative Mobile Makerspace STEM Lab was born. SRSU partnered with the Science Mill museum in Johnson City and SWTJC to make the mobile lab a reality. Noyce scholars and their mentors collaborate with schools and public libraries located in rural communities with ranches and farms between El Paso and Eagle Pass. In the branded mobile lab, the scholars and their mentors provide fun, engaging STEM educational experiences based on the training they received. The instruction is focused on future-ready skills in the agriculture industry where technology is drastically changing jobs.
As mentioned earlier, SRSU intends to review the efficacy of LFRI. The CRT and content-specific, digital pedagogical skills gained by the teachers in training will be measured by the Culturally Responsive Teaching Survey and Teacher Efficacy and Attitudes Toward STEM (T-STEM) Survey. In addition, the Technology Proficiency Self-Assessment for 21st Century Learning (TPSA C-21) is expected to measure faculty development that integrates diversity, equity, and inclusion to improve culturally responsive intervention and integrate technology in STEM content courses.
In its first six months, the La Frontera Research Initiative Mobile STEM Lab served over 2,345 underrepresented minority individuals in several communities, including those in Alpine, Eagle Pass, Uvalde, Del Rio, Johnson City, San Antonio, Iraan, and Midland.
The Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program has a goal of graduating 16 students in STEM majors with teaching certification in secondary education. Currently, 11 students are enrolled in the program. Prior to the program, SRSU’s education department had only issued three certifications from 2016 to 2020 to math and biology majors. If all 11 students complete the Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program, the number of certification completions will have more than doubled previous efforts.
By increasing the number of highly qualified math and science teachers to surrounding communities, it has been observed that the interest in STEM has increased. Many new high-need schools have expressed interest in partnering with SRSU to create stronger pathways toward STEM degrees earning a teaching certification.
Early data gathered from the T-STEM and TPSA C-21 are showing positive gains. Among the results so far are the following:
- Teachers in training reported a higher confidence toward teaching in the 21st century skills compared to mentor teachers.
- Science content teachers report a higher culturally responsive attitude toward inclusion and attitudes compared to math content teachers.
- Males self-reported a higher efficacy toward the internet, while females reported a higher efficacy toward teaching with technology.
In addition, SRSU and SWTJC institutional data was evaluated. The four-year university and two-year community college had high Latinx student enrollment, but Latinx faculty members were significantly underrepresented. In terms of student success, SWTJC has remained consistent fall to fall with its retention rate. It’s essential to acknowledge that the increase in the rate of enrollment for underrepresented minority students outpaces their degree attainment. Students, for some reason, are not persisting on to earn a four-year degree. SRSU sees its partnership with SWJTC as integral to building a sustainable pathway for individuals who want to enter the STEM workforce.
For a program similar to LFRI to be effective, the postsecondary institution must reach beyond its walls to build trust and partnerships. Meeting underrepresented minority communities face to face where they are is essential for building trust. The institution must establish partnerships with local school districts, public libraries, community colleges, and museums, among other community organizations and groups, to promote the program and encourage the community to participate.
Colleges and universities must have a program that can be accessible in various environments and to local populations. The equipment—high-tech and low-tech—must be mobile and reliable, particularly if the lab goes off road or encounters an area with no connectivity or extreme weather conditions. Signage and instruction must be in multiple languages. Doing so reinforces that the program participants value the different cultures in the community.
Editor’s note: In the feature image, Jose Gloria, a biology major in the Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program, teaches to children how to use coding and sensors to measure soil moisture for crops. With water resources stretched thin across the United States, it is more important than ever to conserve water. By manipulating the soil moisture sensors, individuals in the agriculture industry can save water by targeting crops only when they need water and avoiding overwatering, which can occur after it rains.
“Postsecondary value is consumer-driven; it’s about what the individual student consumer is deriving in terms of value in impacting their social mobility and their station in life going forward. At Sul Ross, it’s the core of what we do. What we do is focused on transforming lives. Well over 80% of our students are minority students and we’re working day in and day out on supporting these students and helping them become college-ready. Completion is really where it’s at in terms of postsecondary value; it’s something that we’re really challenged with in our data. We have many students who reach junior and senior status and they stop out completely (about 20 to 30%). The message that has been core in higher education has been, ‘You need to go to college.’ Now the message needs to be, ‘You need to complete college.’ Our goal is for our students to complete their degrees and walk away with a palpable, durable good that will trigger a life-changing event in their lives. And ensure they get jobs! There can be a disconnect between what colleges and universities see as the goal of higher education and what student consumers see as the goal of higher education. Colleges and universities can see degree attainment as the purpose of higher education. Student consumers see their engagement as being productive only if they’re able to secure job placement and career pathways they’re after. Students are saying, ‘We need a job,’ and I think it’s on us to meet students where they are at in their career aspirations.”
Dr. Carlos Hernandez, president, Sul Ross State University
“I really enjoyed being able to experience the STEM lab this year! It has allowed me to see what it’s like to share knowledge with our future generations of kids who are so interested and passionate about what they want to be in life. Being able to answer all their curious questions and help them understand makes me feel happy to be here. The Noyce program is helping me learn so much about what it’s like to be in the education field and how to teach kids in ways that keeps them on their toes! I love seeing the light and excitement in their eyes that we strive to keep on for the rest of their lives.”
Kayley Diaz, graduate research assistant, Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program, from El Paso Texas, SRSU Alpine Campus
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with the mobile STEM lab as it provided me with an experience where I was an educator and presenter to a young student audience. The Noyce program has helped me out tremendously in the academic and financial aspects. It has allowed me to focus entirely on my classes that will eventually guide me into a career in teaching. Better yet, my parents have peace of mind knowing that Noyce will support me all the way through. I couldn’t be more grateful for achieving this milestone of becoming a Noyce Scholar.”
Jose Gloria, biology major, Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program, from Del Rio, SRSU Del Rio Campus
“I absolutely love working with the STEM lab! I personally learn so much better when I can get my hands on what I am trying to learn. The mobile STEM lab is a perfect environment for hands-on learning. I love it when I am explaining the activity and a child’s eyes light up, and I can actually see the seed of learning and a love of STEM take root. Even though going through college is tough, this program has been by my side every step of the way. This program has been such a huge blessing.”
Halie Pate, biology major, Noyce Scholars en la Frontera program, from SRSU Alpine Campus