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NMSU researchers seek ways to enhance girls' participation in math and science

A three-year program at New Mexico State University is exploring new ways of teaching math and science to elementary and middle school girls and enhancing their potential to become scientists.

Alberto Rodriguez. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

The MAXIMA program, funded by a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education, involves teachers and students at five area elementary and middle schools. The program uses an inquiry-based and multicultural approach to teaching math and science, which gives students the chance to actively participate in the learning process rather than simply listening to a lecture.

This new approach makes math and science more accessible to girls and other minority groups who, according to research data, typically do not seek degrees in those fields, Alberto Rodriguez, co-principal investigator for the MAXIMA program, said. Rodriguez is an assistant professor in the NMSU College of Education.

"We want to change girls' attitudes about science, mathematics, engineering and technology so they can see themselves as potential scientists," Rodriguez said. "We targeted girls in this project because they are more likely not to pursue science-related careers, especially minority women such as Latinas."

Studies have shown that while the number of women earning college degrees has increased over the past 10 years, a very small percentage of these degrees were awarded in the science, math and engineering fields, especially among Latinas, Rodriguez said. His own research shows that females consistently score lower on standardized college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT.

"What is shocking is that Latinos are the fastest growing group of people in the United States, but only 3.5 percent of all science degrees awarded last year were earned by Latinos and Latinas," Rodriguez said. "We see this as a major problem and we don't just want to complain about it or write papers about it, we want to address the issues and try to change it."

The girls who participate in the program start in fourth grade and continue through sixth grade. Each year they have the opportunity to work with their regular teachers and student- teachers who have gone through a MAXIMA professional development seminar, one of which was held last summer at NMSU. Students participating in the elementary school programs feed into the programs in the middle schools, assuring them an opportunity to participate for the full three years. The program continues through 2003.

The girls will be interviewed three times a year by researchers to assess their views on science and math. The data collected will be used to develop better math and science programs.

MAXIMA program funding helps pay for equipment that each of the participating schools can use for the inquiry-based and multicultural science projects. One project includes a robotic land rover built and controlled by students that simulates a mission to another planet. Students must first write a proposal detailing the type of planet they are going to explore. Rodriguez said the activities are planned to give the girls "hands-on and minds-on" experience in the sciences.

Although the program is focused on girls, Rodriguez said all students will benefit from having instructors in this project teach in more innovative ways.

Participating in the program are Mesilla, University Hills and Valley View elementary schools, and Zia and Lynn middle schools. MAXIMA staff includes co-principal investigator Cathy Zozakiewicz, director of NMSU's elementary education program.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/rodriguez.jpg
For a print, call (505) 646-3221.
CUTLINE: Alberto Rodriguez. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Chris J. Minnick
Sept. 26, 2000