UTPA hosts TXU Energy's Solar Academy
Posted: 12/08/2010
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The University of Texas-Pan American teamed up with TXU Energy to help 40 teachers from across the Rio Grande Valley develop new ways to educate their students about science.

Stacie Gerlach, a fourth-grade science teacher at Cavazos Elementary in Mission, (left) and Victor Alonzo, a fourth-grade science teacher at Marcell Elementary in Mission, work together on an experiment to understand how electricity works. Gerlach and Alonzo were two of 40 educators who attended TXU Energy's Solar Academy Program. UTPA hosted the professional development workshop.

On Dec. 3 and 4 faculty from the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching - of which UTPA is a member - and representatives from TXU Energy held professional development workshops at the University that gave teachers new ideas to engage their students and learn about the different forms of energy sources.

Teachers from the collaborative conducted the classes that Friday and educators trained by the National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project held Saturday's courses during TXU Energy's Solar Academy. The NEED Project produces the curriculum used for the Solar Academy. Teachers began their educational journey by making a list of everything that requires electricity and developing a more effective traffic light system that allows people with colorblindness to differentiate the signals at night.

They received curriculum guides from the collaborative as well as $800 worth of curriculum and hands-on kits developed by the NEED Project.

The educators said they appreciated receiving ideas for projects to work on with their students.

"We want to be able to pull in the kids with hands-on activities," said Irma Alvarez, a first grade teacher at Travis Elementary School in Harlingen.

Having such activities will help greatly, Alvarez said, because they allow her to teach her students basic principles of science and engineering without making things complicated.

The Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics teaching began about 20 years ago through a grant from the National Science Foundation. With 36 science collaborative programs and 24 mathematics collaborative programs statewide, its mission is to provide professional development and other training to science and mathematics teachers.

"The whole purpose is to raise the science and mathematics achievement of students across the state by helping teachers become more effective teachers," said Dr. John McBride, professor of curriculum and instruction in the University's College of Education. McBride heads up the UTPA collaborative.

McBride said having the collaborative and TXU Energy team up to offer professional development workshops to the teachers further helps that mission of training better educators.

TXU Energy has had the Solar Academy for about four years, and has educated about 600 teachers throughout the state each year. The academy held at UTPA is an extension of the University's partnership with TXU Energy. The energy provider donated solar arrays to UTPA in August, which the University uses to generate electricity to light the International Trade and Technology building on campus.

Using the solar arrays is one of many methods UTPA has been implementing for its University-wide sustainability initiative.

"One of the key things about our Solar Academy is that we pride ourselves on educating the community on alternative energy," said Catalina Madrigal-Rupert, manager of community relations for TXU Energy.

Working with UTPA allows the company to further impact the community by not only educating teachers, but those who are studying to become teachers, Madrigal-Rupert said.

"UTPA is the heart of the Valley. It has the perfect venue to support this type of academy," she said.

Madrigal-Rupert said TXU Energy hopes those educators who attended the academy will be inspired with new ways to teach their students and become more well-rounded educators.

"We're investing in current student teachers, which creates a great dynamic. The current teachers share their knowledge with future teachers so they will become more well-rounded educators. Having better trained, well-rounded educators creates value to a market and better informed consumers, and we want informed consumers at all levels," Madrigal-Rupert said. "We're really excited and proud to say we are partners with UTPA."