Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month: The Arecibo Observatory Space Academy

Photo montage by Ricardo Correa 

Today’s guest bloggers are Edgard Rivera-Valentin and Luisa Zambrano-Marin. Ed is the Project Manager for the Space Academy and a staff scientist in the Planetary Radar group at the Arecibo Observatory. Luisa is the Program Coordinator for the Space Academy and a data analyst for the Planetary Radar Group at Arecibo Observatory.

We are Latinos, we are Scientists, and we are Educators. We often struggle to succeed in a field in which we are underrepresented and devalued both consciously and unconsciously by peers. Our upbringing, culture, and expectations are diverse and diverge from the “norm”. We understand what it’s like to feel unprepared for college, graduate school, and the professional workforce. And all too often, we know the struggle of breaking through established barriers in the scientific community. We are the 3%. 

Hispanics and Latinos are the largest underrepresented group with a measured interest in STEM fields. Studies show that Hispanic and Latino students are equally as interested in entering a STEM major in college as their White counterparts, and yet we are less likely to graduate with a degree in a STEM field (Crisp and Nora, 2012). There is indisputably a gap to be filled, one that we know occurs past the interest in STEM and before the student decides their career path. At the professional stage, it gets even more noticeable, despite the fact Latinos and Hispanics compose nearly 20% of the U.S. population, we only account for 3% of the STEM doctoral degrees and 3% of Physics faculty in the United States. 

So something is very wrong when we have a significant percentage of the population of which a significant number show strong interest in STEM fields and yet are not well represented in the professional stage.

Some studies suggest that we can attribute the loss of interest in STEM fields by Hispanics and Latinos to (1) lack of support and recognition of interest at the high school level (e.g., Grissom and Reading, 2016), (2) lack of preparation in essential STEM education (Gilmer, 2007), and (3) lack of professional and academic mentorship in college (Wilson et al., 2011). 

These challenges are the foundation of the Arecibo Observatory Space Academy. AOSA is a semester-long pre-college program for high school students in Puerto Rico that includes ten onsite instruction days at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Our goal is to harness the student’s natural interest in STEM fields in order to prepare them for the challenges of higher education. To do this we supplement the student’s STEM education via inquiry-based learning techniques, and provide an ESL (English as a Second Language) immersive environment to further develop the student’s written and verbal communication skills. 

Our vision is to bridge the gap between the expressed and noted interest during high school, and retention and degree granting during higher education. 

Students in AOSA work along-side field professionals who mentor them in their chosen research project; we want to simulate the exciting and complex experience of being a researcher. AOSA employs the broad and multidisciplinary field of Space Sciences to focus the student’s curiosity in our natural world. Though students receive core lectures in scientific methods, techniques, ethics, and general topics, their time is primarily focused on conducting a research project. This work involves the full investigator experience: literature review, proposal writing, which undergoes review, compose and implement a research plan, data gathering, and finally presentation of their work in front of peers, family, friends, and Arecibo Observatory staff, all in the span of one semester. 

Our motto in AOSA is that we mentor, we do not teach. AOSA allows the students free reign, so that they may experience failure in a controlled environment and be granted support so they learn valuable problem solving techniques. We go beyond mentoring in science; we prepare students for the academic and professional world. Taking advantage of our experiences, knowledge, and resources, we give the students challenges directed to their time management and planning skills.

To do this, AOSA believes that Science Communication is fundamental. Students must learn to educate each other, their friends, their families, and the public at large. They must learn to communicate with scientists and field professionals and be able to disseminate their work. Because of this, we focus on presentation skills, having the students go through 30 second and 1 minute research pitches, to 2 minute and 5 minute research updates, and finally the full 10 minute presentation. These verbal presentations also work to build the student’s confidence in their work and abilities. 

AOSA has in the past partnered with the NASA Astrobiology FameLab to go through Science Communication exercises. Additionally, we strive to send students to yearly conferences, such as the International Space Development Conference. 

AOSA is proud to say that during its 5 year run, all college-aged students have entered college seeking a STEM degree. This year, the first class of AOSA alumni will be graduating with their bachelor's degrees. The program is demonstrating that it can help retain students in college through to degree granting. This is because AOSA does not end after our students graduate; it continues throughout life by creating a sense of family and a vital support network.  During AOSA classes, we encourage peer-to-peer evaluation and teaching in order to cement this valuable network. Students know that they can always count on each other and on us, the whole of the Arecibo Observatory, for support and mentorship. 

AOSA students come from nearly all over the island of Puerto Rico, some driving 3 hours every Saturday to make the onsite classes. In fact, up to now, AOSA has recruited students from nearly 75% of Puerto Rican municipalities. Intersectionality is a cause that we strive to meet. In fact, AOSA applicants are typically well balanced in gender ratios. This percentage is carried out through recruitment and graduation. 

We at the Arecibo Observatory believe that one site can make a difference, one program can bridge the gap, and one group can help build a brighter future. AOSA has been able to reach over 600 high school students from Puerto Rico and has shown them that they can have a future in STEM. We are proud of our students and all they have accomplished and will continuing striving for diversity and inclusion in STEM just like we have.


Edgard Rivera-Valentin (Project Manager & Astrophysics and Planetary Science Mentor) Ed has Bachelors’ degrees in Physics and Mathematics from Alfred University, where he minored in Planetary Science, and a Ph.D. in Space and Planetary Sciences from the University of Arkansas. Rivera-Valentin is currently a Staff Planetary Scientist in the Department of Solar System Studies at the Arecibo Observatory in Arecibo, PR and serves as the project manager for AOSA.

Luisa F. Zambrano-Marin (Program Coordinator & Space Engineering Mentor) Luisa did her undergraduate degree in applied physics and her Master’s Degree in space studies at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. She has been working with the Observatory for two years as a mentor for the academy and as a data analyst for the Planetary Radar Group at Arecibo Observatory. Zambrano is currently a Graduate Student at the University of Granada.

Betzaida Aponte (Administrative Coordinator & Environmental Science Mentor) Beth received her Bachelor's Degree in Industrial Chemical Process, an Associates Degree in Technical Chemical Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo and an Education Certification. She has one year of experience as a Teacher and now Beth works as a Mentor and Administrative Assistant of the AOSA program.

During the spring semester, the AOSA Geology group was mentored by Linda Rodriguez-Ford (B.S. in Environmental Science and Geology), and the Engineering group was mentored by Sujeily Soto (M.S. in Engineering). The program also counts on support from student assistants who are previous AOSA graduates.

The Arecibo Observatory Space Academy (AOSA) is an initiative of the Arecibo Observatory Staff and is supported through NASA by a SSERVI subcontract from the Lunar and Planetary Institute/Universities Space Research Association (USRA). AOSA operates under the Planetary Radar Group at the Arecibo Observatory (USRA) and collaborates with the Arecibo Observatory Angel Ramos Foundation Science and Visitor Center.