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NMSU works with Las Vegas City Schools to develop school science center

LAS VEGAS, N.M. - A partnership between the Las Vegas City Schools and New Mexico State University to develop an agricultural and natural resources science center for middle school students is a good fit with Gov. Bill Richardson's goal of making this session of the New Mexico Legislature reflect the "Year of the Child."

rogram is innovative and it's focused entirely on the students' learning," said Paul Gutierrez, Director of Cooperative Extension at NMSU.

Gutierrez is working with Sen. Pete Campos of Las Vegas to secure funding for the project. Campos sees the venture as a chance to build on the area's rich agricultural heritage, make use of an ideal site at the middle school, and give middle-school students a productive setting for greater learning in math and science.

"This is going to help accelerate the learning process for area students," he said. "It is essential that we teach our young people the value of the environment and its most efficient uses. With this partnership, I believe young people will be exposed to the important components that will develop their future and make their lives more meaningful and successful in the world of work."

Thanks to support last year from legislation sponsored by Campos, the project gained initial funding for a professional staff person from NMSU to oversee the center. In an agreement signed last August by representatives from NMSU and the Las Vegas City Schools, NMSU will provide the staff person, as well as support from the staff at the nearby Mora Research Center and research faculty from the NMSU campus in Las Cruces. The school district will construct the science center's greenhouse this year, followed by a lab next school year. Already, work has started on a foundation for the greenhouse.

"We're real excited about it," Memorial Middle School Principal Sandra Madrid said. About 500 students in grades 6-8 attend the school, which was built on former farmland. It includes a lined acequia and water rights for the science center.

Gutierrez pointed out that a child's middle-school years can be a turning point.

"The middle-school years are often the time when kids really start to gain an appreciation for lifelong learning," Gutierrez said. "There's also a real chance they can fall short in middle school." The project is intended to help give students a vivid, hands-on experience through experiments and research projects, which will be integrated into reading, writing, math and science curriculum.

"Every student in the school will be impacted by the onsite ag and natural resources science center," Gutierrez said. "It's not just a greenhouse. It's an opportunity to do scientific experiments. The idea is to cultivate young scientists."

Gutierrez said that goal is especially important when it comes to addressing the shortage of Hispanic and Native American scientists and engineers. "This will help these students become better prepared for high school, and better prepared for college," Gutierrez said.

The project also will be a reflection of the community. "The research will be relevant to the local agriculture in the Las Vegas community," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said the science center is in keeping with the university's land-grant mission. "It fits clearly with our teaching, Extension and research mission," he said.

Darrell J. Pehr
Jan. 31, 2006