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Texas Tech researchers to focus on math and science education for rural and underserved students

Holden Hall
A group of Texas Tech University faculty members has received a five-year, $999,999 grant from the National Science Foundation to educate future scientists and mathematicians from rural and underserved regions in West Texas and the Panhandle.

The project brings together faculty members and administrators from the College of Arts & Sciences, which houses most of the scientific and mathematical disciplines, and the College of Education:

• Callum Hetherington, the principal investigator and an associate professor of mineralogy and geochemistry in the Department of Geosciences;
• John Zak, a professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences;
• Jerry Dwyer, a professor and interim chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction;
• Patriann Smith, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction; and
• Stefanie Borst, an associate professor of German and applied linguists and associate dean of Arts & Sciences.

Over its five-year duration, this project will fund four-year scholarships to 40 students who are pursuing Bachelor of Science degrees in biology, chemistry & biochemistry, geosciences, mathematics & statistics, or physics & astronomy. In supporting the retention and graduation of high-achieving, low-income students with demonstrated financial need at Texas Tech, the project will help fill the national need for well-educated scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians by providing models for student success that are transportable to other institutions serving rural communities.

"We are particularly interested in recruiting from high schools that are underrepresented in sending students to four-year-degree institutions," Hetherington said. "We're interested in examining the reasons for that underrepresentation. Part of this is family connections, and family ties are very strong and hold people close to their communities. Then there's obviously the cost of a four-year education that has to be overcome.

"We think that having proximity to communities, proximity to families and being able to provide financial support will encourage these high-achieving students to come to Texas Tech without significantly disrupting a student's connection to their community."

According to its description, the project aims to improve retention of STEM students from rural areas by combining best practices for retention with the distinct features and strengths of the rural community, such as resilience. It seeks to reshape understandings of the responsibilities of institutions of higher education with respect to rural communities. And because Texas Tech is a Hispanic-Serving Institution, this project has the potential to broaden participation and increase diversity in the STEM workforce.

"We are not building the project to bridge deficits, but seeking to maximize rural strengths," Hetherington said. "Members of tight-knit, multi-generational communities have different outlooks and philosophies that must be woven into our institutional framework if we are to maximize the potential of our most important asset – human capital."

The project focuses on developing a community-based, cross-departmental scholarship program that supports students from rural areas. It seeks to leverage the strengths of rural communities by infusing foundational courses in mathematics and research with examples drawn from rural experiences as well as creating and supporting research, service learning and internship opportunities that are responsive to rural issues. At the center of the project are case studies designed to capture nuances of identity – including ethnicity, rurality and attachment to place and community – to increase understanding and more effectively target the relatively neglected intersection of rurality and higher education.

"While rural schools in Texas educate 40 percent of the state's students, graduates from rural secondary schools have relatively low rates of college enrollment," said Joseph Heppert, vice president for research. "As a natural outgrowth of Texas Tech's commitment to serving rural West Texas, this NSF grant will address the needs of students who might not have the opportunity to, or otherwise choose to, attend college."

The award will run from March 1, 2020, through Feb. 28, 2025.

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