$1.5M NSF Study Focused on Impact of Informal STEM Learning
DANNY PEREZ | October 10, 2013 | UNIVERSITY COMMUNICATIONS
Pei-Ling Hsu, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, left, and Cameron Wilson, a UTEP graduate student, have made several visits to Irvin High School in Northeast El Paso in preparation of a $1.5 million research study that involves Irvin juniors and UTEP STEM researchers.
A pioneering UTEP-led study will investigate how collaborations between University STEM faculty and high school students could lead to more of them becoming science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors – and professionals.
The National Science Foundation awarded $1.5 million last month to Pei-Ling Hsu, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, for a four-year study into the various benefits of cogenerative dialogues, an educational innovation that engages and empowers students in a less structured learning environment.
Cogenerative dialogues, or cogens, has been around for about 15 years and looks for ways to include the voices of all participants to create deeper learning and higher levels of participation. Studies from the past decade have shown that cogens are an effective tool to help urban students learn science. According to a national expert, Hsu is the first person to involve scientists, science educators and high school students in a cogens study.
Hsu's study will involve 54 juniors from Irvin High School, a campus in Northeast El Paso where approximately 83 percent of the student body is considered economically disadvantaged. The Texas Education Agency designated the school this year as a STEM Academy. It is one of the few schools in the state where all curriculum is tied to STEM.
Hsu will divide students into three groups – internship group, internship control group and control group. The two internship groups will be separated into 12 three-member teams that will assist four University of Texas at El Paso faculty members with their research in chemistry, geology and engineering. Despite the different academic status of the team members, they will be encouraged to give their input in a supportive environment.
Wen-Yee Lee, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and the project's co-principal investigator, looks forward to using cogens to share her enthusiasm for science.
"I think this is awesome. We get to take the students along on our scientific journey. We'll walk the same path and break down the barriers between student and faculty," she said. "If I can't transfer the passion for my work to the next generation of researchers, I've only done half my job."
The other participating faculty members are Chuan Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry; Tzu-Liang Tseng, Ph.D., associate professor of industrial, manufacturing and systems engineering; and Lixin Jin, Ph.D., associate professor of geological science.
The professors, their research assistants and participating high school students will meet for three hours every other Saturday afternoon during the spring 2014 semester and then meet for six hours a day for 30 days in June and July on research projects. Part of each meeting will include open dialogue where faculty member and student treat each other as peers. As time goes on, the students will develop an original research proposal, project plan and research report that will be presented at UTEP and Irvin.
"We're introducing scientific thinking," said Hsu, who wants to see the effect of collective resolutions in the teacher/student roles. "The (student) project is not the important thing here. The thinking behind it is."
Interns will be invited to a Dec. 7 orientation at UTEP where they will be given a lab coat, protective goggles and a research notebook. Students who complete the program will receive anywhere from $25 for the control group to $450 for the internship group members. Those students also will get credit for one high school senior science course.
The program has many benefits to the students, including the opportunity to work alongside University researchers in state-of-the-art labs, said Oscar Rico, Ed.D., Irvin's Texas STEM coordinator. He said he expects this program to have a profound impact on the lives of students, many of whom to this point expect to pursue technical certificates and careers.
"The students are very enthusiastic about this program. They're asking a lot of questions," said Rico, who earned two master's degrees at UTEP – instructional specialist in science and mathematics in 2006 and Education Leadership in 2007 – and his doctorate in educational leadership in 2011. "This program opens up a lot of opportunities for advanced courses and additional avenues of success."
Hsu carefully crafted her study to touch on several issues facing science education today including learning the terminology, said Kenneth Tobin, Ph.D., presidential professor of urban education at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. He is a nationally recognized expert in cogenerative dialogues who plans to oversee the project's progress.
"My chief interest is in the way that the emotional climate varies to support the production of new forms of adaptive culture that foster success," Tobin said in an email. He added that the teams will be successful if they maintain and respect their differences. "It is not sufficient for scientists to know what needs to be done – citizens of the world need to learn the science, commit to it, and enact new cultures adaptively in their life worlds."