Grant to fund live science show at UTRGV

Thanks largely to a federal grant, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is planning to create a large-scale live science show to instill interest in science and engineering while providing entertainment to children.

The National Science Foundation will provide over $1.5 million to UTRGV to provide a science show with a focus on young children to spur interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM education, according to a news release.

NSF is a federal agency that promotes science and provides funding to academic institutions, according to the government website.

The university is looking at the University of Minnesota’s model of “Energy and U,” according to the NSF grant. This is a live science show that educates audiences on scientific concepts such as thermodynamics, while providing entertainment through elements such as fire, flashes and heat, according to the website.

UTRGV is looking to bring something similar to the Valley.

Mechanical engineering professor Karen Lozano said this provides a way to encourage children to become interested in STEM, stressing engineering specifically. Hispanics are also underrepresented in these fields nationwide, which they hope to rectify by making it appealing through programs such as these, she said.

According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics make up 16% of the U.S. workforce but only 7% of the STEM workforce. UTRGV is the second largest Hispanic-serving institution with a student population that is over 90% Hispanic, according to the grant.

Many parents are confused or not knowledgeable about what an engineer is and what they do, Lozano said.

Looking at data for school districts in the Valley, there is a gap in math scores with the state, she said.

“Having something like this, it’s like OK you plant the seed in students, you plant a seed in the parents… that it’s important for them to do well in this…(it’s) a production of something that will inspire them to do (pursue) science and engineering careers,” she said.

The first show may come in October 2020 as the planned date. Later, the program will invite local school districts and open it to the community on weekends; and with a week of shows in January and another one-week period in May as the possible times under current plans.

Some of the demonstrations will also be in Spanish to serve its Hispanic population, she said. This also aligns with the university’s mission to celebrate the bicultural and bilingual elements of the region.

The shows will be geared toward fourth and fifth graders as the program would offer “real-world” examples rather than a textbook, she said. As they enter middle school and high school, they can also take more advanced courses if they have the interest. This will make it easier to adjust university into college and study in STEM fields, she said.

Oftentimes, those who work in these fields are not as always in the spotlight.

“It seems that engineers are always behind the scenes,” she said. Lozano said this could also provide a “significant outreach” through a “theatrical production.”

About 40 students will be involved with the production, ranging from those in the sciences but incorporating the liberal arts as well, she said. The theatre department will also be involved, adding an element of entertainment, engagement and showcasing the visuals. Faculty will also be on stage, and some engineering students flying drones along with other studies.

“It’s a lot of work that’s coming up, and that doesn’t mean that we’re not doing everything else that we do, so we also do our high-tech research and education of our students … so it’s added on, but I think it’s something that will definitely, you know, help the community, something that the community will enjoy,” she said.

The grant funding will go toward paying these students, buying supplies for the production and to the university.

This funding is estimated to end in July 2024, according to the grant. However, Lozano said they will have to find funding in other ways for the program.

Legislators have also expressed the need for education children in STEM.

“Our world’s increasing reliance on technology and data means strong STEM-focused minds will continue to be in high demand, and we should give Texans in these fields every advantage to succeed,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said in a news release. “I applaud area leaders for their work to obtain this grant, and I’m grateful to the Trump Administration for supporting young minds in the Rio Grande Valley.”

The mission of the grant also aligns with the sentiment of making STEM appealing to children.

When children or youth attend a concert, that singer or musician offers a profession many of them may want to aspire to, she said. This event could provide a similar image through outreach for a role that is traditionally seen as “behind the scenes.”

Although other professions are worthy of undergoing a study, she wanted to highlight the engineering profession, she said.

“We want to be seen by the kids, like I want to be like him, I want to be like her, that’s the whole point of this,” Lozano said.