ALAMO, RGV – Teachers from Vanguard Academy say they have come back from a summer training program at Rice University even more motivated to teach STEM courses well.

Among the Vanguard teachers that participated in the week-long training camp were Ana Muñoz, Geraldo Flores, and Ruby Aguilar.

“It was an amazing experience, the first year I have bee. If they have it next year I will go again,” said Muñoz, a Pre-K teacher.

Aguilar, who teaches 6th grade math, said the training camp was important because there are not enough Hispanic students entering the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“It is good that they (Rice University) are targeting the minorities. All the graphs and charts show we need to the Hispanic population to become more knowledge on STEM,” Aguilar said.

According to surveys, there are currently two science and technology job openings for every qualified job seeker. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics says that between 2010 and 2020 the overall employment in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) occupations is projected to increase by 17 percent.

However, not enough Latino students are pursuing degrees and careers in the STEM fields to meet the increasing demand. Only 67 percent of Hispanic students have access to a full range of STEM courses (Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry and Physics) in high school. 

The lack of STEM representation is more prevalent at the postsecondary level with only 16 percent of Hispanics and 8.8 percent of Latinas completing their STEM bachelor’s degree.

“The number of Hispanic students participating in STEM is still very, very low. We have to reach out to our community to let them know that anything is possible,” Aguilar said. 

Aguilar pointed out that many lucrative careers are available to students that excel in STEM.

“They say that ten or 20 years from now we will have robots running the restaurants. Our students need to know how to operate the robots. We are teaching students for jobs that do not yet exist. We do not know what the needs are going to be,” Aguilar said.

“We as teachers have lived through the changes in technology. We did not have cell phones, we did not have tablets. We are able to say to the students, you guys are lucky. I feel we have a bird’s eye view since we have our past experiences. Who knows what the future holds for our students so it is just a matter of giving the educational background to help them.

“We all know our future is STEM, everything is going into technology, everything is going into computation. And while there are machines to create that, you are the ones that have to program it and know exactly how it works, detecting the bugs.”

Muñoz explained how the training camp at Rice University was beneficial.

“We had two instructors, curriculum and instruction and we learned how to apply that in the classroom. We were able to collaborate with other teachers around this region. We were able to see how we apply it all grade levels,” she said. “Everything we did was in groups but I was able to see how I would apply it my classes.”

Asked why STEM classes are importuning to Pre-K students, Muñoz said: “Once I apply STEM, without the engineering, of course, in the classroom the students learn those high order thinking skills. We are helping them to become critical thinkers.”

Muñoz agreed with her colleagues from Vanguard about the value of the training received at Rice.

“It was an amazing experience. We got to meet teachers from different grade levels so we were able to interact with them and ask how they would integrate what they learned. It was a lot of hard work but it was productive and meaningful. We had to work together.” I felt I was in college all over again. 

A bonus for Muñoz was that she got to sample college life away from the Valley, albeit only for a week. 

“It was an eye-opener for me, college life. When I went to university, I lived at home. This course motivated me to do my Master’s on curriculum and instruction, a component in the STEM program.”

Flores, a high school math teacher at Mozart Secondary, said the Rice course takes teachers deeply into project-based learning. “This is not new but we do not use it much in the classroom. I think it will benefit my robotics program. You go there, they give you a problem, you find the knowledge, your collaborate, you run with it, come back, present it, get blasted and do it again.”

Flores said the Rice course “took me out of my comfort zone” and really pushed him, “The first class was Sunday, from 5-10:30 p.m. I thought they were bluffing. We did not finish until 3 p.m. on Friday. They really meant business.”

And, the teachers had homework assignments during their week at Rice. The last time I had homework was 25 years ago,” Flores said. “It was a nice experience. It was nice going back to dorm life after 25 years. I have gone to very few training programs that were as exciting as this one. They kept us on our toes. I would definitely do it again.”

Aguilar agreed, calling the training camp “amazing.”

She explained: “I thought I was a college student again. We got our own dorms, we got to walk the campus, we had breakfast, lunch and dinner was paid for. It was like a mini-vacation. I am a mother of two so I missed my kids. But when you are with others that share the same ideas that you do, you want to have that personal growth so you can teach it to your students. It was very enjoyable for me.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Vanguard Academy teachers Ruby Aguilar, Ana Muñoz, and Geraldo Flores.