Home / Articles Posted by M. Yvonne Taylor

Photo of Melissa WetzelMelissa Wetzel, associate professor of language and literacy, shares research-based ideas about the literacy “crisis” and how understanding diverse literacies is a stronger educational approach.

Children come into the world with a set of language and literacy practices. Young children are always learning to name their world and discovering how language works. As they grow, they learn the words that are important to their worlds, what Paulo Freire called their “word worlds.”

When they enter school, they are often assessed in terms of their letter and word recognition, their phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and letter and word writing. These are measures of literacy.

However, there are other aspects of literacy that are not measured because test developers cannot have a window into the world of words that surrounds each child. What we know, for example, is that there is not a word gap, as many researchers have found, between students who speak English as their first language and second language learners.

In fact, the number of words that bilingual and multilingual students know might far exceed the number of words that an English monolingual student knows. In addition, multilingual students have the additional knowledge of how to navigate their social worlds using more than one language!

Line of colored Candies and kid counting

Photo by Patrick Tomasso (@impatrickt) on Unsplash

One thing we are pretty sure of in the field of literacy is that teachers who know how to find out what a student knows and how they are literate—rather than gaps in their literacy—will be much better equipped to build on what the students know and help them to be successful.

Illiteracy is an unscientific concept and very political. Literacy rates were used to document literacy during a politically constructed “crisis of illiteracy” in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, under the Reagan Administration, many organizations began receiving funding from the federal government for programs designed to provide basic literacy education for those people who were identified as illiterate.

Like other “crises,” a crisis of illiteracy is dangerous for many reasons, primarily because it positions some people’s languages and literacies as deficit and narrowly defines what it means to be literate. It positions students who leave school as illiterate, which is often untrue, and shifts responsibility and blame onto the young person who may have been miseducated in many ways.

In a binary of literacy/illiteracy, we have to ask, “what counts/doesn’t count as literacy” and “who benefits from literacy programs and initiatives,” among other important critical questions. In a dynamic society in which what it means to be literate is always changing, it is hard to see how narrow measures of literacy (reading and writing assessments) might be meaningful to public conversations or policymakers in productive ways.

Organizations that are focused on literacy often rely on discourse from the literacy crisis to make claims about literacy rates and why they are a problem. This discourse appeals to those who want to help—through volunteering and monetary support. That can be a good thing. The danger, however, is that each time a literacy crisis discourse is evoked, dominant and narrow views about what counts are reproduced. That means we may move further and further away from understanding diverse literacies, what and how students know, and what literacies will support them most for participation in a changing world.

Wetzel is Judy Spence Fellow for Excellence and Associate Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her research and teaching focus on how pre-service teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences. 

-Feature photo of books by Patrick Fore (@patrickian4) on Unsplash

Two girls discussing the books they are reading.

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Because of the foundational importance of literacy to education, teachers are increasingly expected to integrate reading across various subjects, including science. But choosing appropriate texts can be a challenge for teachers, who may not be well-versed in how to critically evaluate them.

Headshot of Dr. Petrosino

Anthony Petrosino

Associate Professor Anthony Petrosino of the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin’s STEM Education program and doctoral student Sarah Jenevien have developed a solution that addresses this challenge.

The two collaborated with the college’s Office of Instructional Innovation to develop an online Children’s Science Book Database, where pre-service elementary teachers post reviews of science-related children’s books. The database was created in 2014 and has become part of pre-service teachers’ coursework within their science methods class.

“The review template encourages pre-service teachers to engage critically with the texts in terms of their scientific content, fostering scientific process skills and identifying potential stereotyping or gender bias,” says Petrosino.

Pre-service teachers are asked research-based questions. They must critically assess the literature for processes, content, readability, engagement, and interest. Their reviews provide basic information, such as a summary of the book and the maximum and minimum grade levels it would be appropriate for.

For example, one student wrote of the book Volcanoes, “The book could be considered slightly gender-biased because only images of male geologists are included. However, considering the publishing date, it’s most likely that only men were given credit for the science discoveries at the time.”

Currently, over 130 children’s books have been reviewed for the database, including titles such as Pluto’s Secret, A Butterfly is Patient, What Makes Day and Night? and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which one reviewer noted has many positive aspects, but is not based on sound scientific principles, “as it is impossible for food to fly down from the sky three times a day.”

“By searching the database, pre-service teachers can easily find books that match their grade level and subject area, which decreases the difficulties associated with integrated lesson planning and increases the likelihood that they will use children’s books during their field teaching experiences,” says Petrosino. “This work helps teachers become critical consumers of children’s literature.”

The database is available for educators and the public to view reviews.

 

 

Bridge

Photo by Carmelo Paulo R. Bayarcal from Wikimedia Commons

This August, Victoria M. Defrancesco Soto, currently a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches in the Department of Mexican-American and Latino Studies, gave the keynote address for the 8th Annual Texas Higher Education Symposium. The symposium was hosted by the College of Education’s Educational Leadership and Policy Department (ELP) at The University of Texas at Austin.

In “Bridging the Political Divide: Educators on the Front Line,” Soto spoke directly to over 100 educators in attendance about how what happens in their classrooms can help bridge a widening political and societal divide.

“In classrooms,” said Soto, “diverse groups come into contact. Shared contact can stem in-group/out-group divisions.” That intergroup contact, the very presence of others, starts the process of bridging.

To facilitate bridging, she explained, certain components are necessary: equal status of individuals, cooperation, common goals, and support by institutional authority. “Schools are ground zero for this,” she said.

“Education reduces prejudice through the social norms that are introduced,” said Soto. “For example, a person with a preference unlike yours deserves respect, and you may have other things in common. Smalls steps inoculate against polarization.” In addition, she said, “Learning about the history and lives of others also helps humanize them.”

Soto urged educators to help their students “get uncomfortable. Help them talk about different views rather than retreat to enclaves with pre-established conditions and content. Let things get uncomfortable, and moderate as an educator.”

“You as an educator have more power than almost any other profession to bridge the cultural divide.”

This was the second year that the ELP department hosted the Texas Higher Education Symposium, which brought together several hundred educators from public, private, and two-year colleges around Texas.

 

Students writing tips on a whiteboard

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

 

Many teachers and students in the Houston and surrounding areas are only just beginning to return to school in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. For some, schools will remain closed, and students are being redirected to other locations. Many families lost their homes; some lost their livelihoods. Meanwhile, families and educators in Florida are just beginning to assess the impact of Hurricane Irma.

The effects of natural disasters impact the lives and the psyches of students, and caregivers and teachers often struggle with how to respond.

Erin Rodriguez, an educational psychology assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education studies stress and coping in children. Here, she provides tips to caregivers and teachers to consider for helping children following a natural disaster.

Tips for Caregivers:

  • Emotional and behavioral difficulties following a natural disaster are not uncommon. Children may have symptoms of posttraumatic stress and depression, as well as conduct problems (i.e., “acting out” behaviors).

 

  • Children may also experience academic and social difficulties. These problems may be related to emotional difficulties, but can also result from disruptions in schooling and daily activities due to the disaster.

 

  • Children who have greater access to social support, through parents, family members, teachers, friends, and other supportive adults, are more likely to show resilience in the long term.

 

  • Following a disaster, adults should provide ways for children to return to daily routines and activities as much as possible, including school and extracurricular activities. Returning to these activities can reduce the risk of ongoing disruptions and provide multiple avenues for social support.

 

  • Some children are at increased risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties following a disaster. This risk is increased if they experienced more immediate threats (e.g., threats to life) during the disaster, face ongoing stressors (e.g., losing their home/relocation) from the disaster, and if their parents/caregivers also experience emotional difficulties from the disaster.

 

  • While symptoms can get better for some children over time, children with increased risk may experience more severe and lasting difficulties. These children can benefit from evidence-based treatments, including treatments that use cognitive-behavioral strategies. Evidence-based treatments are particularly effective when children can access them within the first few months following the disaster.

 

Head shot of Dr. Erin Rodriguez.

Erin Rodriguez – Assistant Professor

Says Rodriguez, “After a natural disaster, adults sometimes assume kids are resilient, but that may not always be the case. If a parent or teacher notices signs of anxiety, or mood or behavior changes in the weeks or months after a disaster, they should seek out mental health professionals who can assess whether treatment is needed. The good news is that there’s strong research supporting the benefits of early intervention for kids who need it.”

Graphic of mountains

When Special Education doctoral student Lisa Didion was a special education teacher for students with various disabilities in Missouri, she saw her classroom as “a never-ending research experiment.” She enthusiastically talks about her attempts to advance her students to an academic and behavioral level on track with their typically-developing peers.

Didion had already earned a master’s degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University, with a major in behavior disorders, where she developed a penchant for collecting meaningful data on students’ academic progress and behavioral skills. She often used her interest in data collection as a way of motivating herself.

“One day, on my afternoon run, I began thinking about how my own exercise data motivates me to improve my performance,” she says. She thought collecting that kind of data might be motivational for her students too. “I began teaching my students about data by sharing my own. It was important to illustrate for my students that performance can increase and decrease, and to model for them the appropriate emotional responses to these changes. My main objective was to teach the importance of tracking data to monitor progress.”

Didion paired her teaching of data and its relevance to a science unit her class was doing on landforms. “The intervention taught students about their own data, visualized through a line graph, and explained like climbing a mountain,” she says.

And with that, Data Mountain was born.

“It was my biggest ‘Aha!’ teaching moment,” she says. “I created a bulletin board with construction paper and painters’ tape. My students’ faces on cartoon hikers started their ascent of Data Mountain, climbing a peak each time they reached a goal.” Each Friday, she conferenced individually with students to share their academic and behavioral data. “They connected that their behavior while completing a task influenced their performance, illustrated through their data. They began to improve more quickly on weekly progress monitoring assessments.  Every year after, for a range of data types, most students showed progress when I used Data Mountain.”

An upper-elementary teacher saw the influence Data Mountain had on Didion’s students and began using the procedure for reading fluency in her classroom, with similar results. The idea began to spread.

In fact, Data Mountain became influential throughout the school district and Didion’s innovative teaching earned her Teacher of the Year.

Jessica Toste and her student Lisa Didion

Lisa Didion and Jessica Toste

Didion realized that there was not much written in the education literature on this type of intervention. Some of the research she did find was written by Jessica Toste, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, whose specializes in motivation research related to students with disabilities. Didion’s desire to pursue a doctorate in the subject led her to the College of Education to study with Toste, who has become her advisor.

Together, Didion and Toste have been conducting a pilot project using Data Mountain as a reading fluency intervention with third-grade students in the Austin area.  Says Toste, “Through this type of work, we hope to explore ways to intensify interventions. We want students to become more autonomous and engaged in their learning, so that they can fully benefit from instruction. This pilot study is a first step. Lisa is passionate about teachers and students using data in meaningful ways, and it has been exciting to empirically test an intervention that organically grew from her teaching practice.”

 

They hope to scale up to a larger investigation, and Didion intends to publish the research, present at conferences, and conduct workshops with teachers to share their methods.

“My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.”

“When I began to pursue my doctorate, my primary goal was to explore the interventions that were inspired by my students. My ambition was to put science behind my teaching practices and encourage teachers to understand the science behind theirs.  I am so grateful that Dr. Toste supports me in this endeavor, challenges me to continue to ask questions as I dive further into the research, and helps me to take full advantage of the opportunities here.”

POST TAGS:

The proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has been around since the 17th century. Over three hundred years later, it’s still widely understood that play is important to rejuvenation and creativity.

Education researchers also understand that, for children, play is essential to learning.

Experts like Christopher Brown, an associate professor at the College of Education of The University of Texas at Austin, are alarmed by the sharp reduction in play time for kindergarteners.

In Brown’s recent op-ed, published in the Conversation and Yahoo News, “Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.”

This shift is alarming, says Brown, because, “focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.”

Christopher Brown during the recording session for Academic Minute.

Associate Professor Christopher Brown

Brown’s research-based perspective is becoming a call-to-action among the public. He has appeared on programs like the Academic Minute and most recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s On Point broadcast.

Says Brown, a former kindergarten teacher, “No one … is advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. … Kindergartners require more balanced learning experiences that nurture their development and their desire to learn and interact with others. This will improve their performance in school and assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.”

 

Woman smoking an e-cigarette

New nicotine delivery products change game for those working to lower tobacco use among young

BEFORE BIG TOBACCO WAS HIT with massive state-initiated lawsuits in the late 1990s, tobacco use among teens and young adults was so common that some high schools still maintained designated smoking areas for students. After the states won their lawsuits, the industry was forced to set up funding in perpetuity for programs to prevent smoking and to provide resources to help smokers quit. In 2013, 14 Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) across the nation were established.

Texas TCORS on Youth and Young Adults, led by Cheryl L. Perry, of the University of Texas School of Public Health, is one such center. Comprised of three University of Texas sites—UT Austin, UT School of Public Health, and UT MD Anderson Cancer Center—the TCORS on Youth and Young Adults focuses its research on the impact of tobacco and tobacco marketing on the most vulnerable age groups for beginning tobacco use and becoming addicted: adolescents and young adults.

The center has found that while cigarette smoking has decreased among this age group, use of alternative tobacco products is increasing at an alarming rate.

In short, the fight against nicotine and tobacco is far from over.

The Good Old Days Go Up in Smoke

The “good old days” is how Alexandra Loukas, the Barbie M. and Gary L. Coleman Professor in Education in the College of Education, refers to the early tobacco landscape.

Loukas, who studies health behavior in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education (KHE), is the principal investigator for the Tobacco Marketing and Alternative Tobacco Use project, one of the center’s three research projects that focuses on young people’s nicotine and tobacco usage and the marketing aimed at them.

“Tobacco products used to come in a limited number of forms, like cigarettes, cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco,” she says. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act became law and gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate the manufacture, marketing, and distribution of cigarettes, roll-your-own, and smokeless tobacco products.

But while government began more intensive regulation and focus on traditional tobacco, myriad alternative tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery systems—also called e-cigarettes— flooded the market.

Loukas says that tobacco companies were “unprepared when lots of mom-and-pop shops started selling e-cigarettes,” devices that often look like cigarettes but use a battery to heat a nicotine vapor. E-cigarettes are available in more than 7,000 flavors and are often marketed as alternatives to cigarettes, a way to slow or stop smoking, or for use in places like bars or restaurants, where smoking is banned.

And they aren’t less dangerous to health. Not only is regular nicotine use—even through an e-cigarette— associated with respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers, new evidence suggests nicotine interferes with adolescent and young adult brain development.

E-cigarettes have divided the public health community. “Many public health professionals believe that e-cigarettes may reverse declining trends in tobacco use by re-normalizing cigarettes and introducing kids to a supposed safe alternative.

“E-cigarettes have divided the public health community.”

“Others, however, believe e-cigarettes may help smokers quit their habit,” Loukas says.  They’re also concerned that overregulation of e-cigarettes might put small companies out of business and cause the large tobacco companies, which have more resources and experience to fight regulation, to gain ground.

With no regulation of the industry and limited knowledge of the chemicals in the ubiquitous flavors, no one really knows how safe, or dangerous, e-cigarettes are.

And according to research, from November 2012 to June 2013, e-cigarette companies spent $39 million marketing these products, which have a particular appeal to young people.

An Intro to Nicotine Addiction for the Young

Many Millennials, people 18 to 34 years old, grew up viewing cigarette smoking as a disgusting and dangerous habit. That’s due in part to “the media promotions such as the Truth campaign, which decreased tobacco use among young people by showing how the tobacco industry has manipulated and targeted youth and young adults,” says KHE Associate Professor Keryn Pasch, a coinvestigator for the project.

From November to june 2013 alone, e-cigarette companies spent $39 million marketing their products. High school students use of e-cigarettes grew 12% between 2011 and 2014

Despite smoking’s decline in recent years, tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States.

Eighty-five percent of those who become addicted to nicotine try it before age 18, and 99 percent who become addicted do so by age 26, according to research.

The college years are the ones in which young people transition from regular use to addiction. That’s why the rise in college students’ use of alternative nicotine products is disturbing. “Youth are drawn to e-cigarettes,” says Loukas, “because they view them as a safer alternative.”

And according to the research, e-cigarettes might serve as an introduction to the array of nicotine products, with 11.5 percent of students using multiple tobacco products, like hookah, which is also growing in popularity among college students.

What’s Being Done

The $20 million dollar grant that funded the Texas TCORS is helping UT researchers track changes in college students’ tobacco use and examine the role of tobacco marketing.

Photo of Keryn Pasch

Keryn E. Pasch

Photo of Alexandra Loukas

Alexandra Loukas

The center is in its third year collecting data from students at 24 two-and four-year colleges in Texas. Funding by the Texas Department of State Health Services to Loukas and her colleagues contributes to the development and implementation of college-based programs to prevent tobacco use. These prevention programs are being implemented in an additional 21 two- and four-year colleges in Texas.

Pasch leads work that examines the various ways tobacco is marketed to students. She and her students assess outlets that sell tobacco products around each campus. They document and describe what tobacco products stores sell, which bars students attend, and how much tobacco students might encounter in their environment.

According to Pasch, the FDA is building an arsenal of data to pass regulations to regulate marketing, and “in order to get policy change we have to add evidence to the stockpile,” she says.

Her team is helping gather that evidence, and in May, the Obama Administration announced it will begin regulating e-cigarettes, hookahs, and premium cigars like regular cigarettes— barring those under 18 from purchasing the products, adding warning labels and preventing them from being given away as samples.

In addition to evidence-gathering to facilitate policy change, Pasch, who also studies the effects of food marketing on K-12 students, explains that “we need to consider the environment. We focus on individual choices and behavior, but people don’t realize how much of their world is influenced by marketing in their environment. Our research is looking for links between the students’ environment and what they use.”

Lara Latimer, lecturer and project coordinator in KHE, provides college student groups with resources, such as ways to assess and strengthen tobacco policies on their campus, a web-based curriculum, and coordinated anti-tobacco marketing campaign materials and messages to help them combat the problem.

The peer-to-peer communication about the risks of the various kinds of tobacco use and the dangers of hookah and e-cigarette use in particular is key to helping students make better choices.

In the end, says Loukas, the message that young people need to understand is simple: “No matter the product, a smoker is a smoker is a smoker, and all of these products have a negative impact on health.”

New research shines much-needed light on gay men’s use of Facebook to reveal their sexual identity

Educational Psychology Professor Aaron Rochlen and doctoral student Matthew Chester

The idea of a gay man coming out often evokes in the mind a certain scene: images of a family member or friend seated in an arm chair in a living room, while the gay son, brother, father or husband opens up about his closely guarded sexual identity. However, a new study from researchers at The University of Texas at Austin suggests not only that social media may be disrupting this familiar tableau, it may also be helpful in lessening the negative ramifications for these men.

Educational Psychology Ph.D. student Matthew R. Chester and Professor Aaron Rochlen at the College of Education were part of a team of researchers that investigated the experiences of 12 gay men who came out online using Facebook. Their paper was recently published in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services. The study fills a gap in the literature about gay men’s coming out experiences.

Coming out as a gay man is rife with risks. In fact, research shows that gay men face higher incidences of sexual prejudice than lesbian women or bisexual men, and increased violence, verbal abuse and crime. They are more likely to be perceived as mentally ill or as child molesters. To mitigate the effect of these outcomes, gay men may use a variety of methods to disclose their sexual identity, such as direct disclosure, clues, and speculation. Their methods of disclosure often depend on social contexts, such as whether or not the audience is a member of their family, work community, or friendship group. However, much of the research about gay men coming out only focuses on verbal direct disclosure.

Said Chester, the study’s lead author, “While taking a break from work one evening, I came across news articles about young men who were using Facebook to come out to their loved ones. The thought of coming out on social media intrigued me, and I began searching for scientific literature on the topic. To my surprise, no empirical articles existed about the phenomenon, so I decided to conduct a study.”

It turns out that coming out on Facebook is actually quite common. In fact, previous research revealed that more than 6 million Americans have come out on Facebook since 2014. Chester’s study sought to formulate a better understanding of gay men’s use of the social media tool for this purpose, to identify goals for coming out online, and investigate differences between disclosure methods.

“Overall, an interesting pattern emerged that gay men used Facebook as a way to avoid repeated, emotionally-taxing discussions about their sexuality,” said Chester. “The men in our study who came out online said it was a wholly positive experience in which they received significant social support that exceeded their expectations. Our research provides valuable information about the shifting landscape in which gay men are coming out to others.”

“This study shows the deep emotional and personal nature social media posts (and others’ reactions) can have on people’s lives.”

“Research in this area, like our use of social media in general, is evolving,” said Rochlen. “Matt has done an amazing job of using some of his own experiences and observations to contribute to a needed and novel research area with real-world implications. Even if on a small scale, this study shows the deep emotional and personal nature social media posts (and others’ reactions) can have on people’s lives.”   

Although the research only looked at gay men’s use of Facebook to come out, Chester said, “There are interesting trends—especially among young people—with regard to use of social media, specifically, engagement with social media well beyond Facebook with platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Twitter.  I would like to see future research focus on coming out in a digital age across all these platforms.”

STEPHANIE CAWTHON AND CARRIE LOU GARBEROGLIO

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio are deaf. They have lived the experience—as students and professionals—of working with accommodations and breaking down barriers. Their passion for changing the paradigm of the educational experience in the U.S. for deaf individuals has influenced their work as researchers.

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Stephanie Cawthon and Carrie Lou Garberoglio

Cawthon is the director of a new center in the College of Education that has received a $20 million, five-year grant from the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). It is one of the largest grants awarded by the DOE to support technical assistance and professional development in education.

The center’s goal is to help change the climate, culture and expectations for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level”

“We want people who are deaf or hard of hearing to have access to more robust services—services that serve the whole person, and that have been, and that have been proven effective. We want to increase accessibility, concentrating on the grass roots, and understand why things are happening at a deeper level,” says Cawthon, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and an Elizabeth Glenadine Gibb Teaching Fellow in Education.

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Institute, which will open in January, will be housed in the College’s Meadows Center’s infrastructure and nationally recognized expertise in translating research into practice.

“Dr. Cawthon will lead a strong collaborative national team of researchers and practitioners. The project is well-positioned to draw upon extensive experience, data-driven research, and scholarship in the field,” says College of Education Dean Manuel J. Justiz.

The center will support colleges and universities that work with organizations and public agencies across the nation to more effectively address postsecondary, vocational, technical, continuing, and adult educational needs of deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

“Ultimately, we seek to change the culture surrounding postsecondary outcomes for deaf individuals and create conditions for success in a way that recognizes and honors their experiences, perspectives, and abilities,” says Garberoglio, project Manager at the Meadows Center and a co-principal investigator on the team.

Currently, best practices for supporting educational outcomes after high school for deaf and hard of hearing individuals have not been studied rigorously or shared broadly, which means that uneven outcomes are common. The new center aims to change that.

The center’s researchers want to increase admittance to, persistence in and completion of college or post-secondary training without remedial coursework, as well as institutional capacity to implement evidence-based practices and strategies. The team also wants to increase the body of knowledge on ways to use technology to promote access and provide accommodations.

Says Cawthon, “I’m proud that we’re bringing together teams of people from education, business, and community organizations, as well as families, in an innovative and useful effort. We want to improve the research and find better ways for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing to overcome challenges and be successful.”

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Kimberly Gonzales, M.A.’12, is a rare Latina in tech. The Dallas native and digital content engineer for Texas Instruments earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before graduating from the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin with a master’s in learning technologies.

Kimberley Gonzales

“The rumors are true. MIT is very challenging,” she says with a laugh. But in addition to the challenge of content, “it can be hard to also face discrimination.” Working in assigned groups with males can be particularly tough, she explains. “The guys don’t let you code or gain access to the circuit boards. Instead, they want girls to do the presentations.”

But Gonzales didn’t let the challenge and discrimination deter her. “I joined a sorority with six to seven girls who were computer science majors, and we’d do group projects together,” she says. The support was just what she needed to successfully complete her studies.

When Gonzales graduated from MIT, she decided to pursue study in educational technology because she knew she wanted to work within the field of education in some way. “Diversity in any field is valuable. Diversity fuels innovation. In education technology, it should be diverse people working on the tech that will be in the hands of kids these days, because those kids themselves are diverse,” she says.

Kids and science

STEM photo booth at Mi Escuelita preschool in Dallas

Latinas comprise only 2 percent of the STEM industry, “but it’s such a great field and you learn a lot,” she says. “I think a lot of factors affect students’ desire or lack of desire to pursue these fields. Teachers should be aware of what they say to students that might discourage them or to watch for signs of students who self-select out of more challenging work. For example, watch to see if the minority female student offers to take notes when working in a group activity with male students and encourage her to take on a more challenging task.”

She adds, “It’s tough being such a small minority within the field, but in my case, it made me want to go home and do something to help change the numbers.”

After completing her master’s, she returned home to Dallas to take on the role of digital content engineer at Texas Instruments, managing the development of educational content for various platforms. In addition to her job, she’s also the community involvement chair for Texas Instruments’ Hispanic Employee Initiative.

“Being in a workplace where few people look like you can feel lonely and isolating,” she says. “The Hispanic Employee Initiative provides mentorship, networking with other leadership teams, and is a place where you can build community and feel safe to voice your opinions or just feel a little at home.”

latinasstem

Planning team at the Latinas in STEM 101 conference

Gonzales also volunteers on the Latinas in STEM Foundation’s board of directors as the director of marketing and public relations. Her involvement represents coming full circle for Gonzales. “My mother has worked as an executive assistant at Texas Instruments for many years. One day, she met a Latina engineer who’d graduated from MIT and co-founded the Latinas in STEM Foundation.” That meeting led Gonzales’ mom to push her daughter to apply to the college. “I wouldn’t have applied otherwise,” she says.

Her mother’s support of her education goals was crucial, and parental support is a component that is important for other Latinas considering STEM fields. “When I ran the Dallas Latinas in STEM 101 workshop for high school and middle school students and included their parents, I had my mom answer questions. A lot of the parents had never been to college and didn’t speak English. Hearing my mom’s perspective was very helpful to them.”

Gonzales is the eldest of three sisters, all who studied engineering. She and her family are doing their part to increase diversity in a field that needs them.