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UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION

Above, instructors aid a student participating in Texas State University's NASA STEM Engagement and Educator Professional Development Collaborative. Below, students use a virtual-reality headset to take part in Texas State's NASA STEM collaborative. Photos courtesy of Dale Blasingame

UNIQUE CONTRIBUTION: TXST's EPDC team works with NASA's STEM@Home initiative

TXST's EPDC team works with NASA's STEM@Home initiative
Sunday, November 29, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic created chaos in several different facets of day-to-day life. For many people, particularly those with young children, one of the biggest challenges (with potential long-term effects) has been the switch to online learning.

A Pew Research Center report published in late October highlighted the serious worry parents have about their child’s education. Pew surveyed more than 2,500 parents of K-12 students, and 68% said they were somewhat concerned or very concerned about their child falling behind at school because of disruptions related to COVID. There were even starker breakdowns among socio-economic levels. Parents with lower incomes were nearly 20% more likely to express concern about their child’s education.

Unavailability of face-to-face teacher professional development opportunities during this time is also a critical issue. Teaching is a particularly demanding field that requires constant updates and development. This need in particular, has opened a door for Texas State University’s NASA STEM Engagement and Educator Professional Development Collaborative, or EPDC, which is housed in the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research.

The EPDC team, funded by NASA, consists of education specialists who provide learning experiences for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educators no matter where they are. Since 2015, EPDC has focused on supporting educators by offering online content to assist in this goal — everything from one-hour professional development webinars to six-hour asynchronous study of specific learning content in STEM (digital badges). Dr. Araceli Martinez Ortiz, EPDC’s principal investigator and research associate professor of engineering education at Texas State, recognized the increased need for EPDC services once the pandemic started in March.

“Our wonderful education specialists had so many ideas as to how to help, but it was my job to strategize, organize and lead us to quickly deliver sustainable, quality services to serve a very diverse audience,” Martinez Ortiz said. “This audience suddenly included parents in the role of educator, so we offered more webinars at more times during the day, delivered new workshops specifically for Spanish speaking parents and launched into the development of more NASA science and engineering educational resources.”

By offering more EPDC learning experiences to “informal educators” — parents, grandparents, guardians, librarians, Boy and Girl Scout leaders and more, EPDC contributed in a unique way to NASA’s STEM@Home national initiative.

“I think it’s the best investment to assist our parent participants in whatever way possible because they gain confidence in STEM educational topics and often become closer allies who help their students on this educational path,” said Martinez Ortiz.

EPDC is helping parents and students at home with NASA content and STEM activities that provide inquiry learning and handson work, according to Dr. Leslie Huling, the EPDC project director. For example, the NASA "eggstronaut" activity calls for students to use the engineering design process to design, build, test and analyze data from a prototype parachute designed to slow the descent of an egg and minimize the force of impact when landing. The goal is to keep the egg from breaking. Students tweak and improve their designs to figure out the force needed without destruction, which is not much different than trying to land someone on the moon. “They see the challenge, but it’s not real hard to make the leap to say, ‘This is what NASA is doing on a bigger scale,’” Huling said.

There’s generally a very positive reaction to the NASA-related content included in EPDC learning experiences. It’s understandable, though, that many parents haven’t thought about these STEM topics in a long time or don’t feel comfortable enough teaching them to their children. That’s where resources such as the Bilingual STEM Teaching Tips webinars and Science Big Idea Quick Bit videos come into play. Informal educators can watch a short video that walks them through a NASA-themed activity from start to finish and refresh their understanding of the science and engineering big ideas.

“Our first job is to provide that comfort and encouragement to parents and caregivers in this role, said Missy Berry, an EPDC specialist. “You don’t have to be a subject matter expert in every area.”

In the post-COVID environment, EPDC team members quickly noticed the trend of more parents and informal educators attending scheduled webinars originally designed for classroom teachers — to the point where specialists had to limit the content to allow more time for questions and answers.

For Susan Kohler, an EPDC specialist stationed at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, implementation of these STEM lessons is always at the forefront of her job. She said the EPDC team has learned a lot over the years when it comes to teaching non-teachers how to teach, and the keys are to exude calm and encourage them to embrace discovery.

“When I’m talking to informal educators, I’m talking about what professionals call experiential learning,” Kohler said. “Every time you expose a student, whether they’re an adult or child, to a new idea, you don’t want to just talk about that idea. You want them to have an experience with that idea.”

As a researcher of culturally responsive teaching, Martinez Ortiz has encouraged her team to integrate a variety of learning resources to address the needs of a more diverse set of learners. Many webinars are offered in Spanish, new resources like the STEM Teaching Tips are geared at parents and the series of 18 Quick Bit videos will include versions for Spanish-speaking audiences. The team also created the NASA Stars en Español program — a monthly webinar connecting educators to Spanish-speaking subject matter experts from NASA. It’s a personal calling for Dr. Samuel Garcia, a specialist at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He grew up in the Rio Grande Valley to migrant farmworker parents. His grandparents had 3rd grade educations. He was the first in his family to go to college — and he’s seen the impact that representation in STEM can have on families and communities.

“Education is the doorway for success,” Garcia said. “Education can lift families out of poverty. Education can completely transform a community.”

While EPDC webinars are primarily designed for teachers and pre-service teachers — college students who are about to enter the classroom — there has been a decided emphasis placed on STEM engagement for students in the past year.

EPDC recently created a student site for completing digital badges. These lessons cover topics related to NASA’s Next-Generation STEM projects: Moon to Mars, Commercial Crew Project and Aeronaut-X. The student site was designed so educators can go in and select which badges their students will complete while they, the teachers, serve as guides. When the pandemic started, EPDC opened the student site up for parents and students to go in on their own and complete badges.

EPDC specialists are making special efforts to work with a specific school district to develop customized badges — for both teachers and students. Dr. Deepika Sangam, an EPDC specialist, is currently collaborating with Houston ISD on a set of badges for the district’s aerospace academies. The lessons will contain NASA content on topics like aeronautics, life science, engineering and issues related to diversity and STEM. Sangam hopes to take this same model to other districts around the country and meet their specific needs with the content.

Above, a student participating in Texas State's NASA STEM Engagement and Educator Professional Development Collaborative shows off her work. Below, a student participating in Texas State's NASA STEM program uses an infrared tool. Photos courtesy of Dale Blasingame

“With NASA’s current, exciting work, there is an opportunity for teachers and students to be engaged,” Sangam said. “NASA has this amazing ability to capture everyone’s imagination, so we hope that by giving them opportunities, in absence of all the center-related opportunities they would have otherwise had, we’ll still be able to reach a large number of people.”

Martinez Ortiz has also created online opportunities for students interested in STEM careers to take part in during the pandemic. This summer, 13 students from Texas, California, Florida and Illinois, all from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in STEM, completed a virtual internship with the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research. Here they worked on STEM activities and projects related to robotics, virtual reality and other NASA technologies. The interns were guided by mentors Javier Ortiz, a recent industrial engineering graduate from Texas State, and Kelly Stephenson, a senior in electrical engineering technology. In addition to the STEM projects, students learned professional skills and explored engineering career opportunities with invited Industry professionals.

“They may know STEM, but what does that mean when it comes to a career?” asked Stephenson. “This helps them explore deeper into that. They don’t know what aspect of engineering they may want. We help guide them in that direction.”

Despite there being much more work to do, Garcia is proud of how Texas State has helped overcome some of the challenges on on line learning. Though the team members, individually, have different skill sets, there’s a unifying message and mission among the specialists and leaders — to provide the highest-quality educational experiences for educators and students. Garcia said the rich, NASA content is a giant help, but content alone doesn’t get the job done.

“The art of education is the pedagogy,” Garcia said. “How are you going to communicate? How are you going to teach the student in a way that engages them, that excites them, that inspires them and instills curiosity in them? I think we do a really good job blending the NASA content with our skill sets in a way that students want to learn. In a way that parents can teach at home, as well.”

Martinez Ortiz is proud of her EPDC team’s response in a time of global pandemic. The team demonstrated its expertise, flexibility and dynamic nature and didn’t miss a beat during quarantine. In fact, she believes they’re more effective and productive than ever before.

“The vision of NASA’s STEM engagement enterprise is to immerse students in NASA’s work, enhance STEM literacy and inspire the next generation to explore,” Martinez Ortiz said. “Our Texas State EPDC team shares in NASA’s commitment, and we will do our part to carry it out — even during times of pandemic.”

For more information about EPDC and resources for students and teachers, please visit: https://www.txstate-epdc.net/

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