LAS CRUCES – A group of students at New Mexico State University are getting hands-on experience with research that will benefit not only their overall learning experience, but the learning experiences of those utilizing outreach programs offered by the university.
Six undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines are working at the STEM Outreach Alliance Research Lab, or SOAR Lab, which is housed at NMSU’s College of Education. The lab came about in the spring as part of the reorganization of the Alliance for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.
Karen Trujillo, director of The Alliance, said students involved with the SOAR Lab are working with other program directors across NMSU to gather data on outreach programs, analyze them and present their findings in order to improve those programs.
“Program directors are so busy with their programs, there’s no time to analyze the data they collect through surveys to do an in-depth analysis,” Trujillo said.
SOAR Lab students are also collecting data on teacher vacancies statewide as part of a report on the teacher pipeline. That analysis will offer a portrait of what subjects and locations in the state are in most need of teachers.
What makes the SOAR Lab unique, Trujillo said, is that students and faculty are researching the impact of the educational outreach programs using mixed methods, something that has not been done before. Students are gaining experience in both qualitative and quantitative research methods. In class, many times students only receive experience in quantitative research.
“In order to get the clearest picture, you have to look at both. You can’t just focus on the numbers,” Trujillo said.
Besides the teacher vacancy report, students are working with the College of Engineering’s NM Prep summer program for middle and high school students; Upward Bound, the STEM Outreach Center and Mathematically Connected Communities in the College of Education; and Arrowhead Center’s Innoventure program.
Trujillo said she received 30 applications from NMSU students who were interested in working at the SOAR Lab, signaling a need for immersive research experiences.
“There is a need especially for graduate students to have experience in something that is not controlled in a lab setting,” Trujillo said. “It’s also intentional for us to have students with varied backgrounds so they can transfer their knowledge to each other.”
Luis Rangel, a graduate student in applied statistics at NMSU, said he became interested in a program evaluations course where he had to learn about mixed research methods. Previously, he had experience in data analysis and quantitative research, so learning about mixed methods was a challenge, which is why he became interested in the SOAR Lab.
“I’m challenging myself in something I don’t know, which is qualitative research,” Rangel said. “I want to be a methodologist, so I need to learn all forms of analysis.”
Prior to her involvement with the SOAR Lab, Yvette Salcedo, an undergraduate psychology major, had no research experience before she began helping with the teacher vacancy report.
“It’s interesting to see how the research starts,” said Salcedo, who plans on pursuing her master’s degree in educational psychology after she graduates in a year or so. “This is helping start off on the right foot. Real life experience is key, and I’m really excited about the research, too. Living in Texas, I didn’t realize there was a teacher shortage in New Mexico. It’s very surprising to me, especially seeing that special education is an area in most need of teachers.”
The other students working at the SOAR Lab are Shubhasmita Pati, a master’s computer science student; John Kulpa, a psychology doctoral candidate; Germain Degardin, a graduate student in curriculum and instruction; and Sabrina Jamison, an undergraduate student majoring in secondary education.
By being involved with the SOAR Lab and helping program directors and faculty, students also have opportunities to publish articles and present at conferences. Trujillo said she hopes the SOAR Lab will eventually become self-sustaining, with directors involving the lab with their programs from the very beginning.
“We want students to have the opportunity to use data from programs that already exist instead of starting their research from scratch,” Trujillo said. “We also want to make the outreach programs better, so it is a win-win for everyone.”
“Eye on Research” is a weekly feature provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Adriana Chavez of University Communications.