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January 1993

Minority Students Find a Personal Connection to Science through Monthly Role Models

Every month during the school year, students in Lucille Barrera's science class eagerly await the arrival of a poster profiling the life and work of a selected scientist. What makes the posters unique is that many of the scientists who are profiled come from a minority background (minority being defined as African-American, Hispanic, and Native- American).

Very few minority students have a friend, relative, or neighbor who is a scientist," said Barrera, who teaches K-2 students at West University Elementary School in Houston, TX. "I started the 'Scientist-of-the- Month' project to inspire minority children to excel in science. I find it extremely important to provide them with excellent role models."

To start the poster campaign, Barrera wrote to real-life, working scientists, asking for job descriptions, photographs, and biographies. Some scientists went beyond this request and visited the school to give demonstrations. Students have seen demonstrations on why solids crack at low temperatures, where the "fizz" in soda comes from, why sunspots exist, and how a person can lie on a bed of nails without getting hurt. Among those minority scientists who visited were Enrique Barrera (no relation), a mechanical engineering professor at Rice University; Sid Gutierrez, a NASA astronaut; Richard Tapia, a computational and applied mathematics professor at Rice University; Juan Meza, a mathematical and computer scientist at Sandia Laboratories; J.V. Martinez, Program Manager for the Office of Energy Research at the Department of Energy; Patricia Reiff, a space physics professor at Rice University; and Ed Dean, a mathematics professor at the University of Houston.

Barrera came up with the idea after attending a 1992 "Mathematics and Computational Science Awareness" (MCSA) workshop, a CRPC-sponsored event that brought K-12 teachers of minority students together to discuss educational opportunities for increasing minority participation in science, engineering, and mathematics. Listening to talks by Richard Tapia, the workshop's organizer and a CRPC researcher, Barrera was inspired to bring science to a more personal level. "I still have my original ideas that I jotted down on scratch paper," she commented. "The MCSA workshop made me aware of the many areas of science and the changing role of mathematics. It also provided me with invaluable information for starting this project."

Lucille Barrera holds a B.S. in Biology and Elementary Education from Pan American University. She is currently working on a master's degree at the University of Houston.

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