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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
January 24, 2008
DeKalb, Ill. — Over the next five years, Northern Illinois University will take about 45 middle and high school science teachers on geologic field trips to Mexico, aiming to bring back culturally relevant and exciting lessons for Hispanic students.
The National Science Foundation is providing more than $1 million in funding for the effort through its Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences program. NIU piloted the Mexican field experience in 2006.
As many as 15 teachers from school districts with large Hispanic populations will be accepted into the program for field experiences in the summers of 2008, 2010 and 2012. They will travel to either the Yucatán Peninsula or the Mt. Popocatépetl volcanic region near Mexico City.
The NIU project seeks to diversify the professional experiences of science and social studies teachers who play a large role in the academic lives of young Hispanics.
Hispanics are the largest, fastest-growing and youngest ethnic group in the country. Yet they have been the most underrepresented in science and math courses at the high school and college levels. They are particularly underrepresented in the geosciences.
“To inspire the next generation of scientists, teachers must reach out to young students with culturally relevant lessons,” said NIU Professor Kathy Kitts, who is co-director of the field experience project and also coordinates certification of science teachers in the university's Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences.
The application period for this summer’s trip to the Yucatán will open in February. The summer program runs 21 days, from June 25 to July 15, and includes training on campus at NIU before and after a two-week trip to Mexico.
Teachers will meet with Mexican educators and top scientists, while touring regional geologic features and conducting field activities. Teachers also will be required to participate in six workshops throughout the course of the year and in a follow-up course on the NIU campus in the summer of 2009. The follow-up components will further delve into diversity issues, literacy and assessment techniques and identity development of students and teachers.
Each participant will earn six graduate-level course hours and receive a minimum stipend of $2,000.
“NIU is providing a number of educational support services to ensure that participants will be able to implement newly learned lessons and strategies in the classroom,” Kitts said. “We’re confident based on our pilot program that the teachers will be successful. They have the potential to reach an exponential number of students, hopefully providing inspiration to pursue careers in science.”
Teachers who participated in the 2006 pilot program traveled to the Mt. Popocatépetl volcano, which looms more than 17,000 feet over the Mexico City region’s 20 million inhabitants. There the teachers conducted geologic work and evaluated the risk of future ash falls, lava flows and mudflows.
The group also participated in discussions on local water issues and natural disaster risks with faculty from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. The field experience additionally included visits to Cholula, the largest pyramid in the Americas, the bottom of which is covered by a lahar (mudflow); to Los Humeros, a geothermal field with baths fed by sulfurous springs; and to Puebla Central School, the equivalent of a U.S. middle school.
“I can show students I care, I can tell them I care, but studying their homeland made them believe that I care,” said Amie Thompson, an eighth-grade science teacher who participated in the pilot. “I demonstrated my genuine interest in them and their culture.”
Thompson said about 90 percent of her students at Simmons Middle School in Aurora are from Mexico or of Mexican descent.
“When we discuss volcanoes and other earth science topics, I can refer to knowledge gained on my trip, and everyone sits up a little straighter,” Thompson said. “They make connections they wouldn’t make if I weren’t connecting with them. The difference is amazing. They are anxious to tell me about their homes and to hear about the experiences I had.”
Participants in the Yucatán field experience will travel to the Spanish colonial town of Valladolid and embark from there on a tour of geologic features in the Yucatán Peninsula. Those features will include karst topography, characterized by caves and cenotes (freshwater lakes occupying depressions in limestone), as well as lagoons, salt pans and both healthy and threatened beaches, reefs and wetlands.
The group also will visit a road cut that makes visible a blanket of rubble produced by a large asteroid that collided with the planet and is believed to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs.
“The Yucatán is a beautiful area. Actually, it’s what Illinois might have looked like 450 million years ago,” said NIU geologist Eugene Perry, co-director of the field experience project. He has conducted research in the Yucatán for more than two decades.
“The eastern coast of Mexico from Cancun south was largely a remote area until about 1970, when it started to become a major tourist destination,” he added. “We hope to give teachers a feel for Latin culture while also examining the impact of population growth and the accompanying environmental problems. In the end, they’ll build their own personal curriculums that reflect Mexican geology, as opposed to typical textbooks in this country that focus on U.S. geology.”
Other NIU faculty members participating in the project include Francine Falk-Ross (literacy education), M.Cecil Smith (educational psychology), Lisa Yamagata-Lynch (cohort development), all in the College of Education, as well as Penny Billman (internal assessment) in University Outreach.