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The Q&A: Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz

In this week's Q&A, we interview Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz, associate professor of bilingual education and diversity studies at Texas Tech University.

Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz, associate professor of Bilingual Education and Diversity Studies at Texas Tech University.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz is an associate professor of bilingual education and diversity studies at Texas Tech University. Aguirre-Muñoz is an associate director of Texas Tech’s STEM Center for Outreach, Research & Education, or STEM-CORE. She received her Ph.D. in Psychological Studies in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles. Aguirre-Muñoz joined the Texas Tech faculty in 2004.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: The center has a broad mission statement and vision. How does it all work?

Zenaida Aguirre-Muñoz: Currently, we have six associate directors with one executive director. We have representation from the various disciplines including education and human science. All of us are interested in STEM research and outreach to some extent. We are responsible for developing greater partnerships with increased numbers of faculty across the campus. Largely that comes through supporting faculty in thinking about submitting proposals.

The center has had some success with garnering quite a bit of external resources and funds to investigate a number of different things. Primarily, it is outreach and how to recruit underrepresented students and help them persist in the STEM field. And we’ve looked at it from different perspectives.

There is one project, for example, that looks at it in terms of motivating more undergraduate STEM majors to go into education. Then we use a very specific framework where we look at their personality background and try to match that with certain experiences to increase the likelihood that they will seek STEM education.

Another way we have done that is through recruiting K-12 or community college students who have an interest in STEM. And we are supporting them with very structured experience at their campus as well as here at Tech to increase their awareness of all the different possible STEM-related fields that are out there and then match their particular interest to the right major.

We’ve more than doubled the state rate both with enrolling into STEM majors and also graduating from them with these very specific targeted experiences. That includes the standard tutoring in difficult classes, but also putting them into contact with professors with labs, having them experience what scientists do to get them motivated.

For a lot of kids, especially underrepresented populations, other than doctors, nurses and applied engineering, they really don’t have a good sense of what all the opportunities are. We give them that experience and a lot of support. We have had close to 80 percent of them major in and go on to postsecondary education in some STEM related field. So we are really excited about that.

We also do a lot of work with really young kids, and found some funding to look at how we can build early childhood experiences in kindergarten and first grade classrooms to develop their awareness of engineering and the engineering design to support their content and literacy skills in science.

Trib+Edu: How would one of these outreach activities look like when they are implemented at schools?

Aguirre-Muñoz: During the school year, it could be in the form of an after-school math club or science club. The after-school programs are very engaging and very problem-based kind of experiences that they gain. In the summers, we have lots of competitions, one to two weeks long, where they learn about a particular area or they are given a certain engineering challenge. They work with Tech undergraduates who are majoring in STEM areas to build something throughout the week. It could also be in the form of offering more explicit training in a STEM area like biology, chemistry or mathematics.

Trib+Edu: In this center, how do the various Texas Tech professors involved coordinate to produce research and outreach?

Aguirre-Muñoz: A lot of it has to do with getting faculty to work outside their silos. We created a lot of seminars on different topics that we think they would be interested in to let them know what other people are doing but also find potential collaborators on different projects. All of this costs money, so we also provide a lot of support.

One of the goals is to get them together to seek external funding to continue this work. We are trying to build a stronger infrastructure, so when new people come in, they can more easily join a research project. When those who are older retire, there will still be work in place, and we can continue this strong multi-disciplinary collaboration that has resulted in a huge impact on K-12 students and teachers as well as undergraduates.

Trib+Edu: Dealing with so many students, is the hope to get them interested in STEM or only to pursue STEM careers?

Aguirre-Muñoz: It is both. We need much more interest in the STEM area earlier. We know that after about second grade, interest starts decreasing. We want to develop programs at school so that interest increases, not decreases. We also want to develop programs to help school districts meet changing expectations of the state. With the new diploma requirement there is a heavy emphasis on STEM and schools don’t know exactly how they are going to support that, because that requires a very different way of teaching in STEM, especially in high school. We also see the need for more engineers and more scientists especially those coming from underrepresented groups.

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