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Middle school teachers experience science wonderland at HESTEC
Contact: Roxanne Lerma Casares, Staff Writer 9956) 665-2741
Posted: 09/24/2012
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Joanne Fernandez, San Benito ISD middle school dean of instruction (pictured right), and Jennifer Resendez, San Benito ISD Berta Cabaza Middle School teacher, construct a "Mars lander" using four balloons, string, newspaper, tape scissors and a pencil during the "The Challenges of getting to Mars-Launch, Entry, Descent, Landing" breakout session sponsored by NASA at UTPA's HESTEC Educators Day.

Hector Martinez had the rare chance to revert back to being a student Monday, Sept. 24 at The University of Texas-Pan American during Educator Day at Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week.

The Donna A.P. Solis Middle School teacher sharpened his rocket-making abilities in an effort to better train his students for science- and math-related careers.

"These activities are definitely very engaging and will get our students interested in what they are going to be learning about," he said.

Martinez and about 20 other junior high teachers had fun creating rockets out of paper and pieces of tape and then launching them outside of the Education Building during "The Challenges of Getting to Mars-Launch, Entry, Descent, Landing," breakout session sponsored by NASA.

"It gives the kids a scenario where they can actually calculate speed and giving them a real-life application helps them to retain it more than when we just give them paper problems in a book," Martinez said. "This gives them the conceptual idea of what is going on."

Martinez was among 400 middle school educators from across the Rio Grande Valley who attended the University's 11th annual HESTEC Educator's Day which included 13 breakout sessions.

Joanne Fernandez, San Benito ISD middle school dean of instruction, said she also believes hands-on sessions like the paper rocket launch help students better comprehend tough science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts. Fernandez admits the junior high instructors also had their fair share of fun participating in the activities.

"It helps us put ideas into action. It gives us the visual aspect of what it is students are learning," Fernandez said. "This kind of makes us see what the kids get to see. We as teachers, on the outside looking in, you don't always get to experience the fun that goes into it. Now hopefully we get to transfer that fun to the kids as well."

Breakout session topics ranged from "Careers in Engineering," to "Ten Things Everyone Should Know about the Atmosphere," sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Little Shop of Physics, a hands-on science outreach program at Colorado State University. Instructor Sheila Ferguson said it is vital for teachers to use interactive activities in the classroom to teach abstract concepts.

Carlos Alvarado, a teacher at A.P. Solis Middle School in Donna, launches a paper parachute off the ladder during "The Challenges of Getting to Mars-launch, entry, descent, landing" breakout session sponsored by NASA. The sessions were part of UTPA's HESTEC Educators Day activities.

"It's so hard for kids to understand something without something to anchor it to," Ferguson said. "If they have a hands-on experiment then the teachers can refer back to it and say remember what you saw and then apply that to the concept they are trying to teach."

Jean Chambers, the science core curriculum coach for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, and a few dozen other middle school science and math educators learned how clouds form during Ferguson's workshop, using a two-liter plastic bottle and an air pump.

"I'm a very hands-on learner so anything like this, I love to do because it is fun and it gets our teachers excited about doing the same thing," said Chambers. "With activities like this, the kids get engaged and once they get that engagement and that real life opportunity they are more willing to learn."

Students of the UTPA College of Engineering and Computer Science led the "Engineering Wonderland" activity in which presenters used a six-piece plastic kit to build a solar-powered airboat. Jesse Palomo, a computer literacy teacher from Travis Middle School in McAllen, said the activity is an exciting new way to instruct his eighth-grade students about the benefits of alternative energy. "Engineering Wonderland" was sponsored by Marathon Oil, which also was the chief sponsor of Educator Day.

"It helps me in a sense that I am learning things I didn't even know about and I can take it back to my students," Palomo said. "I want my students to learn in exciting new ways and this has even motivated me to want to come back to school. I still learn something new every day."

Organizers of Educator Day said they are optimistic that the motivated teachers will now go back to their campuses and share their love of science and math and inspire their students to pursue STEM careers.