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

Araceli Martinez Ortiz is the director of Texas State University’s LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research and an assistant professor of engineering education.

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

Trib+Edu: Could you explain a little bit about what the institute does and what your mission is?

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Araceli Martinez Ortiz: The LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research is basically a university-wide center, or institute, that brings together researchers interested in any of the areas of science education, mathematics education and, most recently, engineering education. It brings those thinkers together to collaborate on research to learn more about successful practices to effect change.

I leave it very general because the research can be very different. We have some researchers that are interested in looking at understanding how to improve student retention and success in the STEM fields. We have researchers that are interested in understanding instructional practices and how to enhance the way that they teach, the way that they present information, to connect in a deeper way with students so the information that they’re learning is placed in context and is more exciting and relevant to them so that student chooses to continue with their study in STEM fields.

We also do quite a bit of work in the field of teacher preparation and development in science, technology, engineering and math, because everyday teachers have a lot of competing objectives. Many times they don’t have the preparation in the STEM fields, especially at the younger ages, K to 6, and we know that those are the ages for kids that are important that they get really positive and very strong instruction in STEM. We have a national initiative on sharing practices in teacher professional development, and giving teachers opportunities to learn it with us.

So it’s a research focus but — here’s where it becomes a little more interesting for the non-researcher — and that is that in order for us to carry out our research, we have to have programs, interventions and resources for both students and educators. That means we also end up also structuring and providing a lot of programming. With NASA, we have pre-service teacher preparation — weeklong learning events at the 10 NASA centers around the country. For kids in San Marcos, we have pre-engineering and mathematics summer camps, so those are taking place now.

Trib+Edu: Could you speak a bit more about your teacher development program with NASA?

Ortiz: We have three major grants that we have won with NASA. Two of them are focused on the professional development of educators and one is focused on kids. Of the two that are focused on professional development of teachers, the first one is a $15 million grant that spans a five-year time period, so basically $3 million a year, to leverage NASA resources and to create educational resources and provide professional development to educators across the country.

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Last year in at least a four-hour workshop we reached over 35,000 educators. The way that we do this is that we have education specialists that are Texas State employees working on this project for me, but they are located, one each, at the 10 NASA research centers.

They learn and become experts in the technology at that center, and then they provide professional development that uses that technology or explains that technology [and] makes it a useful resource for the classroom. They reach educators through on-site workshops. Another mode is to go to the school district or to the museum, the formal education setting, and provide that professional development. We also provide online training.

Trib+Edu: Given how quickly technology changes and continues to change, what are the challenges in forming teacher development programs and educating teachers to teach STEM?

Ortiz: One of the things that I talk to my students about often is exactly what you just mentioned — the field of science and technology grows at such a rapid rate that it’s really unrealistic to think that any teacher will become an expert or even just knowledgeable in all of the things that are happening. One area that we focus on is what we teach kids in Texas, and really in the country, is the power of the process skills or cross-curricular skills. We encourage our teachers to really focus on the development of these cross-cutting concepts or practices.

The Next Generation Science Standards that many states have adopted follow what are called the eight engineering and science practices. In Texas we call them the scientific and mathematical process skills. These are skills that really focus on communication, argumentation, understanding the power of proof, looking at science, math and technology as a system, understanding cause and effect, problem solving.

If we really focus on those kinds of skills, then students learn how to research and find the information and use a problem-solving model or an engineering design process to help them understand new information which we may not know now. Yet our teachers are preparing students to work with technologies we’re not able to train them on at the moment.

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