A longstanding partnership between the University of Houston-Victoria and Victoria Independent School District recently expanded to help schoolchildren develop intellectually in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM subjects.

The partnership took on a new dimension this summer after VISD Innovation Specialist Ann Avila contacted UHV science education professor Teresa LeSage-Clements to explore how educators from both institutions could collaborate in helping children develop their STEM skills.

LeSage-Clements and her colleagues liked the idea and formed a group of UHV professors specializing in STEM fields to volunteer as mentors for children attending the district’s two new STEM campuses. By next fall, Smith STEM Academy will have prekindergarten through second grades, and Stroman STEM Academy will have sixth and seventh grades. The partnership’s overall goal is to form a pathway for these schoolchildren to advance in these subjects through their primary and secondary grades and ultimately in higher education and beyond.

“We want to make learning relevant for our students even at a young age,” Avila said. “We want them to make the connection between what we’re doing academically and how we’re preparing them for the future to participate in the workforce. The STEM workforce is high-demand and high paying in this region, and we want our students prepared for that. What better way than for local college professors to help students make those connections, not only at the youngest age but throughout their pathway of preparing for their futures?”

Shortly after this partnership launched, LeSage-Clements invited VISD administrators and STEM teachers to tour UHV’s new STEM building, named University South, which opened in the fall and features a visualization theater with a 210-degree screen, classrooms, labs and dedicated research areas.

Likewise, Avila invited LeSage-Clements and her colleagues to observe student innovation presentations last month at Smith STEM Academy.

“The first-graders talked like scientists and engineers as they explained their projects,” LeSage-Clements said. “We listened carefully, encouraged them and made suggestions. Interacting with the students was inspiring.”

Plans are underway for 250 sixth-graders from Stroman STEM Academy to visit and tour University South in the spring for the partnership’s first “STEM Bridge Experience.”

“By interacting with UHV faculty and coming to the campus for some activities, it will allow students to see the higher education pathway from elementary to middle to high school to college, all in Victoria,” said Rachel Martinez, interim dean of the College of Education & Health Professions.

UHV faculty members also are preparing to engage with elementary school children from Smith STEM Academy. They will organize design challenges for the students and make presentations about STEM subjects the students are learning. The faculty also plan to mentor students whose end-of-year STEM projects relate to each faculty member’s specialization. For example, students working on a gaming and simulation project could team up with a UHV faculty member in that field, and students doing a project related to pollution could be mentored by LeSage-Clements, who has a background in environmental education.

“We know there are many gifted students, and we want to cultivate that,” LeSage-Clements said. “The challenge is reaching them and giving them the opportunities. They need to be exposed to resources that can serve as their springboards.”

In addition to LeSage-Clements and Martinez, other volunteer members of the UHV partnership team include UHV College of Natural & Applied Science faculty members Danny White and Humberto Hernandez, assistant professors of biology; Amy Cuevas, mathematics lecturer; and Scheila Wesley Martins, assistant professor of computer science.

“It is terrific to grow our own STEM students in our city with a bridge to the university. University of Houston-Victoria offers students many STEM majors,” LeSage-Clements said. “Students can earn their degree in Victoria and save thousands of dollars on their education by going to UHV.”

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