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NMSU’s first new faculty cluster to focus on STEM+ education research

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New Mexico State University recently launched its STEM+ Education Research Institute to tackle issues facing STEM+ education with a team of researchers focused on K-12 and higher education.

The plus in the name indicates the integration of the humanities, arts and community needs along with global challenges in translating STEM research into practice.

NMSU’s first faculty cluster includes five newly hired professors who will work together, designing their own proposals and/or collaborating on research designed to improve the effectiveness of STEM+ education.

“We hired extremely talented scholars,” said Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I'm really impressed by these five faculty members. They're all bringing very different talents to the table. They are coming into this with the idea that they're going to work together, and they're going to collaborate on exploring STEM educational research from different angles.”

The researchers range in backgrounds from academia to industry and from the northern to the southern borders of the U.S. and a distant continent.

Suparna Chatterjee, an assistant professor in the School of Teacher Preparation, Administration and Leadership (TPAL) program, was born and raised in India, where she earned her advanced degrees; Adaline De Chenne is a mathematics assistant professor who grew up in a small town in northern Washington near the border with Canada; Mandy Peel, an assistant professor in TPAL, was born in El Paso and grew up in Las Cruces; Patty Lopez, a computer science assistant professor with a long career in industry, grew up in northern New Mexico; and Mariana Alvidrez, an assistant professor in TPAL, was born and raised in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where she was a teacher.

“We are all intentional about leveraging cross-disciplinary collaborations through a series of transformative initiatives of STEM+ Research Education Institute, partnering with our community and industry stakeholders,” said Yoshitaka Iwasaki, dean of the College of Health, Education and Social Transformation.

“For this purpose, our recent STEM+ cluster hire will be instrumental in bringing together interdisciplinary expertise of five new faculty in TPAL in the College of HEST and computer science and math in the College of Arts and Sciences – and many more to come, in a variety of integrated forms of learning, engagement and transformation,” Iwasaki added.

The idea was a joint one between Pontelli and Iwasaki with a significant part of the investment coming from university leadership. Both deans agreed to offer new hires in their colleges to form the research cluster, which meets monthly with the help of two coordinators: Michèle Shuster, biology professor and interim associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Wanda Bulger-Tamez, director of NMSU’s STEM Outreach Center and professor in the College of HEST.

“What we want to ensure is that these faculty members are supported and that there are opportunities for them to think deeply about some cross-department research that they can do together,” said Bulger-Tamez. “But that doesn't happen automatically, it happens with us being purposeful about bringing them together and creating a space for them to explore possibilities.”

“We have confidence in our first-ever cluster,” Shuster said. “Between SERI and the cohort, we expect natural collaborations will come. Once they start putting out their first proposals, they can serve as peer reviewers for one another before a manuscript is submitted. There will be lots of opportunities to keep scholarly collaboration going. That kind of near peer mentoring provides a community and a sense of support.”

Each has a different motivation fueling their enthusiasm for STEM+ education research. They are among 50 new professors hired this fall, the largest group of new faculty ever hired at NMSU in one semester, with 35 of the new hires in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In a recent group discussion, it was clear that members of the cluster share a passion for all students, their identities, their cultures and their ways of learning. They also share a goal to improve processes that can help all students learn more effectively.

“We all have a lot of really interesting ideas,” De Chenne said.” I think we all agree on major points for teaching and local instruction in terms of student identity development, student retention, making sure that we're really serving the student population that we have, but we also have different ideas of how to approach those areas.”

“This cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary work is so important for me because I'm at the intersection of all of these different fields,” Peel said. “I want to make sure that all of these ways of knowing are accessible to everyone from multiple perspectives and multiple angles because all of us come with different backgrounds and there's so much potential when we come together from these different perspectives.”

“Most of the time, we understand equity as accessibility to tools and resources, but it's actually much more than that,” said Chatterjee. “It's also identity and the evolution of who the person is today and what they can do. We need to shift what we consider to be successful, and I don't mean just shift the milestone for what success is but shift how we even think about success. That might mean shifting success from being able to do certain computations to what we can qualitatively reason about these problems we teach students to solve.”

“I'm working on a proposal for supporting student teachers to develop their critical consciousness, to understand their students and to support them to develop their identities as capable learners,” Alvidrez said. “I want to help them to understand mathematics, for example, in a different way, to frame errors as opportunities to learn.”

“I've talked to several of my colleagues about how we address our grading system,” said Lopez. “Here we can focus on rubrics that demonstrate what students have learned and where they are on that mastery spectrum. What I'm really excited about right now is grading. We could make it much more equitable and not just in STEM.”

The group has met only twice this semester, but members are already working on research proposals and collaborations. Two other professors are part of the STEM+ Education Research Institute along with five in the cluster. They are Paulette Vincent-Ruz, a chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor, and Matthew Sievert, a physics assistant professor.