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Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Math and science education expert Catherine Riegle-Crumb has received a National Science Foundation grant to take an unprecedented look at gender and racial/ethnic inequalities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

The funding will allow her to study student participation – broken down by gender and ethnic/racial subgroups – in STEM courses from sixth grade through college. Her findings should provide a clearer picture of the education experiences of groups that tend to be poorly represented in STEM classes, college majors, and careers.

Riegle-Crumb’s research will focus not only on students’ actual STEM course involvement and achievement but also on intended attainment. Examining how patterns of academic achievement and social inclusion vary over several years between subgroups may help explain disparities in STEM participation.

The project will draw on five large-scale and longitudinal datasets – three that are nationally representative and two that were collected in Texas and include large samples of Hispanic students. According to Riegle-Crumb this will be the first study of its kind, one that employs big data to investigate the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender, and STEM education.

“It will offer a comprehensive description and analysis of STEM inequality that’s previously been unavailable,” said Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.



For Men of Color, High Academic Motivation Does Not Bring Academic Success

The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) has announced that UTeach, an award-winning secondary STEM teacher preparation program created by UT Austin’s Colleges of Education and Natural Sciences, is expanding to five research universities. The expansion was made possible by a $22.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

With the spread of UTeach to these universities and five more in the fall of 2015, the program will be at 45 universities nationwide. It is expected to produce more than 9,000 math and science teachers by 2020.

“By increasing access to the proven UTeach model, we’re helping create a STEM pipeline of highly-skilled teachers,” said Sara Martinez Tucker, CEO of the NMSI.

Beginning in the fall of 2014, the UTeach program will be available to students at Drexel University, Florida International University, Oklahoma State University, University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Maryland, College Park.

The UTeach science program, which was created in 1997 at The University of Texas Austin, recruits and prepares mathematics, science and computer science students for secondary education careers. The students are able to earn a degree in their major as well as teacher certification without adding time or expense to their four-year degree program.

The UTeach Institute projects that UTeach graduates will have impacted 4.8 million secondary STEM students nationwide by 2020. The Institute, which is a division of the UTeach program, assists other universities with implementation of the program.

“We must take steps toward change to replenish this country’s star teachers, teachers who can move students to explore and love math and science,” said Robert Tjian, HHMI president. “That’s why HHMI is taking this critical step to help expand UTeach, one of the nation’s best training programs aimed at preparing science and math majors to become teachers.”

The NMSI is a non-profit organization launched in 2007 by top business, education and science leaders to transform education in the United States. It is committed to bringing proven programs, like UTeach and NMSI’s College Readiness program, to scale. The HHMI plays a significant role in supporting scientific research and education in the U.S. and, since its creation in 1988, has awarded more than $870 million to 274 colleges and universities to support science education.

“The UTeach program is successful because it combines aggressive recruiting of talented STEM majors, extensive field experience for the future teachers and a streamlined but intensive series of seven professional development courses that focus on teaching STEM subjects,” said Dr. Lawrence D. Abraham, UTeach co-director and a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. “These features are resource-intensive and can only be sustained by having committed faculty and staff, the necessary financial support, and a strategic and strong collaboration between the colleges that house STEM content specialists and STEM teaching experts. The generous support of our program sponsors has helped us develop this great program and continues to help dozens of other institutions do the same.”

How much science do four-year-olds know? More than you’d think.

To find out if the youngest students bring science knowledge with them to kindergarten, and if they’re capable of learning more than previously assumed, College of Education program coordinator Mary Hobbs and her research team observed, mentored and gathered data alongside 24 Austin area pre-kindergarten teachers.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

Mary E. Hobbs, Ph.D.

An additional 24 AISD comparison classrooms were observed and, in all, 2,500 children were involved in the landmark project.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten,” said Hobbs, who is coordinator for science initiatives in the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching. “They may come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and have parents with different levels of education attainment, but each child has absorbed some of what we’d define as science content by kindergarten.”

To assess children’s knowledge, teachers involved in the project gave them several tasks – like sorting and categorizing – that would reveal their grasp of basic, foundational science concepts.

Teachers and students also created raised bed gardens to give the children an outdoor lab in which to use their current science skills and learn even more about science.  Building the gardens, filling them with plants and nurturing the plants provided rich and varied opportunities for teaching life science, physical science and earth science.

According to Hobbs, the garden was an ideal resource to support student learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics because:

  • research has shown that preschool children normally are very drawn to the natural world and natural objects.
  • an onsite project like the garden gives all children, regardless of background and family financial resources, a common learning experience.
  • it’s a context in which children can learn everything from facts about plants, animals and the weather to concepts of force and motion.
James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

James P . Barufaldi, Ph.D.

“Learning tends to increase and problem-solving skills improve when children have opportunities to explore and they’re able to indulge their natural curiosity,” said Hobbs, “The garden allows children to learn through hands-on activities and inquiry-based instruction. It’s also a learning environment that can be adapted for any age group and in a variety of settings.”

The $2 million, four-year research project, called Building BLOCKS for Science, was the first of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation. Dr. James Barufaldi, director for the college’s Center for STEM Education, and Hobbs were co-principal investigators on the grant.

“What we found was that all children have science experiences and knowledge by kindergarten.” – Dr. Mary Hobbs

“The teachers were remarkably responsive and very excited about learning more science themselves as well as discussing with us the best ways to engage the children in science,” said Hobbs. “In working with the students, they started with what they thought was appropriate for that age group and as soon as they observed the students were capable of handling more, they adapted and began to add more varied and challenging activities.”

As part of the grant, the teachers were given intensive professional development training and mentoring support.

Hobbs and her team have shared their project findings with AISD, other Austin area school districts and many private day care facilities. The schools have implemented many of Hobbs’ recommendations, including building over 200 school gardens to use as teaching tools.

“We discovered that adults tend to consistently underestimate how much young children know and understand,” said Hobbs. “Seeing that they’re capable of much more, we can aim to adapt curriculum and do the necessary teacher training and mentoring to better prepare these students for the learning opportunities they’ll encounter later. Science is best taught by doing, and we are doing science in Austin!”

Photos by: Christina S. Murrey


  • Dr. James Barufaldi and Dr. Mary Hobbs were co-principal investigators on a grant to examine how much science pre-K children know and can learn.
  • $2 million, four-year project
  • First of its kind to be funded by the National Science Foundation
  • 2,500 Austin area pre-K students were involved in the study
  • 24 teachers received mentoring and helped the researchers gather data

Originally published in October 2011

Working with The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, area school districts, and members of the education industry, the College of Education is helping implement Beyond Blackboards, a program that introduces middle school students to engineering design.

Robo Maniacs

“An art student, for example, who shows design promise would never know that there was a niche for her in engineering and most teachers would not know that this talented student could flourish in an engineering class.” – Dr. Anthony Petrosino

Beyond Blackboards is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is based on the highly successful Design Technology and Engineering for America’s Children (DTEACh) engineering outreach program. DTEACh and Beyond Blackboards emphasize hands-on experience with technology and the use of design challenges and robotics to create a context for math and science learning.

“Most students don’t have an entirely accurate perception of what it means to be an engineer and what engineering involves,” said Dr. Anthony Petrosino, associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and co-principal investigator for the NSF grant. “Most adults don’t either, for that matter. One of the strengths of Beyond Blackboards is that it’s designed to educate not only the middle school students, but also teachers, school administrators and parents, or other caregivers, regarding the breadth of education and career opportunities available to someone who’s developed strong math and science skills. Most people are surprised – they possess a rather narrow definition of ‘engineer.’”

Realizing that not all students will, or should, become engineers, Beyond Blackboards focuses on using engineering-based challenges and projects to build students’ skills in analysis, problem-solving, negotiation, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and understanding of systems thinking. Any or all of these skills can help students successfully pursue university degrees and lucrative career paths in any number of fields.

Ojeda Gators

The Ojeda Middle School “Engin Ears” robotics team participating in a Beyond Blackboards robotics competition. According to Dr. Anthony Petrosino, middle school is a critical decision-making time for students and Beyond Blackboards focuses on supporting and educating those individuals who are in a position to positively influence students when it comes to the development of math, science and technology skills.

“Unfortunately, many K-12 engineering programs have been modeled after university engineering programs, which means that students don’t get introduced to the design element of engineering,” said Petrosino. “An art student, for example, who shows design promise would never know that there was a niche for her in engineering and most teachers would not know that this talented student could flourish in an engineering class.”

Historically underserved student populations are particularly at risk for falling through the cracks, with the dropout rate for Hispanics currently standing at around 40 percent. Many of these students may not perform well on tests but can possess skill sets that allow them to do well in engineering design. The confidence and expertise gained in engineering design can be a launching point for understanding core math and science subject material.

To encourage more students to enter science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) fields, Beyond Blackboards is taking a four-pronged approach that includes research-based materials and training for students, teachers, school administrators and parents.

Students are engaged in inquiry-based, open-ended, hands-on learning activities and introduced to a varied selection of STEM college options and careers during after-school programs, such as robotics clubs, as well as in intensive summer camps.

Teachers are trained to lead out-of-school robotics programs, receiving engineering professional development that increases their content knowledge and the level of comfort with which they employ technology in their classrooms.

Teachers are educated in how to introduce students to engineering, using techniques such as drawing students’ attention to everyday examples of engineering topics, thereby placing abstract engineering concepts into familiar contexts. The teachers also learn how to generate interactive discussions about science and math concepts underlying engineering subject areas; set up exploratory labs for the students; present open-ended design problems in class; and help students become adept at communicating technical information, such as their engineering design solutions.


“Really focusing on historically underserved groups, we’re tapping into a large, promising future workforce – this is a great opportunity to increase the number of individuals who have STEM skills.” – Dr. Anthony Petrosino

Beyond Blackboards builds support from school counselors and administrators by offering them professional development that include education on STEM career opportunities and field trips to area businesses and organizations that offer a broad array of jobs in STEM fields. The education professionals also can avail themselves of presentations, discussions and hands-on activities that explain and illustrate students’ learning experiences. Teachers outside math and science – career instructors and art teachers, for example – have access to this training as well.

And finally, the program also reaches out to parents and caregivers, targeting historically under-represented groups in order to build understanding about the options open to students who have math and science skills. Among other things, Beyond Blackboards shares STEM college and career awareness activities with parents of children who are in the robotics after-school clubs or summer camps.

At The University of Texas at Austin, Beyond Blackboards engages engineering and UTeach students to serve as mentors for middle school students in the program.

“Support from multiple sources increases the likelihood of success,” said Petrosino. “Corporate partners like DTEACh are very involved as well as Skillpoint Alliance, a Central Texas education and workforce agency, and members of communities around the participating schools.

“Research points to the fact that middle school is a critical decision-making time for students and Beyond Blackboards focuses on those individuals who are in a position to positively influence students. Really focusing on historically underserved groups, we’re tapping into a large, promising future workforce – this is a great opportunity to increase the number of individuals who have STEM skills.”