Edmundo Lopez had the opportunity to dip into his former profession Monday, Sept. 26 at The University of Texas-Pan American so that he could hone the skills in his current one to better prepare his students for science-and math-related skills.
Lopez and a few dozen other middle school math and science educators battled a strong afternoon sun while measuring a tree outside UTPA's Education Complex Building with tape, mirrors and other devices during one of several workshops for teachers during the University's 10th annual Hispanic Science, Engineering and Technology (HESTEC) Week's Educators Day.
"I love it," said Lopez, who worked as a surveyor for 22 years before switching careers about five years ago. "It's very entertaining and I think our students are really going to enjoy doing this, get out of the classroom and actually do some field work."
Lopez, who teaches a technology education class at Gutierrez Middle School in Harlingen, said he always tries to show his students how science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects apply to their everyday lives. Being able to conduct such activities not only helps students better understand the subjects, it also allows educators to introduce more advanced mathematical methods.
"It helps students understand that math actually has a function in daily life," he said. "They get to see math in action."
Lopez was one of several hundred middle school educators from all over South Texas who attended the daylong event that included a Congressional Roundtable discussion hosted by U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa and UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, workshops that trained them how to use projects and other activities to better teach their students and a keynote speech from Bill Nye, a comedian, TV host and currently the executive director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to involving the public in space.
Nye, whose background is in engineering, told educators that as the world population continues to grow and technology continues to advance, more problems will develop that will need to be solved. Specifically, Nye mentioned the need for innovations to address climate change, which has been caused largely by human activity.
"Your students are going to have to deal with this, your students are going to have to fix what we started and the way they're going to do it is with science and engineering," Nye said. "So people are going to come from all parts of the world with all kinds of crazy ideas about what to do about climate change and I want you guys to get your students to be savvy enough to do the right thing."
Nye shared stories about his family and how their love of science and math inspired him to follow suit in pursuing a career in engineering. He also talked about the projects with which he has been involved through the Planetary Society, including those being conducted on Mars.
"That, my friends, is the essence of science and engineering; that is why we come here, for the joy of discovery, and when you get your students to experience that joy, I hope his or her life will be changed forever," he said. "Science is like nothing else, the joy of knowing is like nothing else. No other discipline has that same visceral joy than when you know something for yourself."
Debra Junk of the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, led the "How Tall is That?" activity in which Lopez participated. She said this activity is very useful to teach middle school students because they are learning proportional reasoning during those years and are familiar with triangles, which are used to measure how tall things are. "How Tall is That?" was sponsored by Shell, which also was the main sponsor of Educator Day.
"I hope they (educators) take their kids outside and think of math more globally; it's not just pencil and paper," Junk said.
Teachers also had fun creating rockets out of foam, card stock and other household supplies and launched them inside the Health and Physical Education II Building.
Debra Harris and Bonnie Aguilar, eighth-grade math teachers at Sauceda Middle School in Donna, said they believe hands-on activities like these help their students better understand what they are being taught. It also lets the teachers have a little fun, too, they admitted.
"Clearly, it's so fun," said Harris, who test launched her rocket using an air pump and a sling made out of a wooden stick and rubber band.
While the teachers were receiving their training, the leaders of their school district and other educators attended a Superintendents Forum where they heard from Hinojosa, Nelsen and Bonnie Gonzalez, CEO of Workforce Solutions, talk about the need for the Rio Grande Valley to work together as a region to improve education, health care and economic development.
UTPA's College of Education also held its Education Symposium, which brought together education leaders and future teachers to discuss their experiences in the classroom, the art and passion of teaching and its impact on students. About 200 UTPA education students attended the event.
In one of several keynote speeches, Debra Schiller, a kindergarten teacher at Pablo Perez Elementary School in McAllen who was named Region One Education Service Center's Teacher of the Year, talked about the rewards of teaching.
"Kindergarten has become my passion," Schiller said. "I get to give my students a skill they will use for the rest of their lives. If they can read, then they will be successful for the rest of their school career."
The University also hosted a Science and Engineering Symposium for High school and UTPA undergraduate and graduate students that was sponsored by Oxy. Dr. Jose Bravo, chief scientist of physics and separations for Shell shared a video about the company and talked about Shell's initiatives on bio-fuels, low carbon options and research and development on sustainable fuels.
During his presentation, Bravo talked about the importance of education and developing good communication skills.
"One of the things you learn when you learn to communicate is that if you make it personal with others, you connect," said Bravo. "You start your careers as technical people, then you take a path to higher knowledge, then you become an expert, morphing into a more knowledgeable person in your field with education and experience."
At a poster presentation following the symposium, students showcased their scientific and engineering knowledge on topics such as mobile device text applications, finding a better approach to relational algebra and studies on polymeric capsules with awards going to high school, undergraduate and graduate student divisions.
HESTEC continues Tuesday with Student Leadership Day, when several hundred middle school students are expected to come to campus to talk with NASA astronaut and McAllen native Mike Fossum via Downlink and learn about the many opportunities the STEM fields have to offer. Tuesday will also begin the four-day Middle School Challenge, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, in which 1,000 middle students will come to UTPA each day to conduct hands-on experiments and learn more about science.
For a full agenda of events, visit www.hestec.org.