Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Kathy Kitts
Kathy Kitts

Eugene Perry
Eugene Perry

To obtain print-quality JPEGs, contact the Office of Public Affairs at (815) 753-1681 or e-mail

News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

June 15, 2006

To inspire Hispanics on path to science,
NIU is taking teachers on journey to Mexico

DeKalb, Ill. —This time it’s the teachers who are going on the field trip.

Northern Illinois University is taking 10 middle school and high school science instructors to the smoking Mt. Popocatépetl volcano, looming more than 17,000 feet over the Mexico City region’s 20 million inhabitants.

Top Mexican scientists and NIU faculty will teach the teachers all about volcanoes, as well as groundwater and other geologic topics. But the purpose isn’t merely to study geology in the volcanic region. Rather, NIU hopes to awaken a population that has been relatively dormant in the university sciences in the United States: Hispanic students.

The geologic field experience is part of a $100,000 pilot program funded by the National Science Foundation and run by NIU to infuse multiculturalism and diversity into the classroom. Most of the participating teachers are from schools that have large Hispanic populations in such communities as Aurora, Streamwood and Hanover Park.

The 19-day pilot program, which begins June 21 with a multicultural workshop at NIU, aims to address the Hispanic achievement gap. Hispanic students are the largest, fastest growing and youngest ethnic group in the country. Yet they have been the most underrepresented in science and math courses at the high school and college levels. They are particularly underrepresented in the geosciences.

“It doesn’t even occur to some students to enter science professions because they aren’t counseled in that direction,” said NIU Professor Kathy Kitts, who is co-director of the diversity project and also coordinates certification of science teachers in the university’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences.

“To inspire the next generation of scientists, teachers must reach out to young students with culturally relevant lessons,” Kitts said. “We believe this project will provide inspiration and ultimately result in Hispanic students and other minorities viewing the geosciences as a viable career option.

“The 10 teachers we train will reach an exponential number of students,” she added.

The NIU field experience seeks to diversify the professional experiences of science and social studies teachers who play a large role in the academic lives of young Hispanics. The program will provide the teachers with a first-hand opportunity to absorb and subsequently convey the geologic research findings of leading Hispanic scientists on issues of environmental importance in Mexico, providing the impetus for science lessons that connect curriculums with first- and second-generation Hispanic students.

Participant Amie Thompson, a sixth-grade science and social studies teacher at Simmons Middle School in Aurora, believes the cultural connection is key to learning.

“If I can’t relate to my students culturally, I’m not going to relate to them scientifically,” she said, adding that about 90 percent of her students are Hispanic. “I teach about volcanoes in science and Mexico in social studies, so this program really works out well for me.

“Nothing gets through to the kids like personal narratives,” she added. “I’ve traveled to many places in the world, and they always ask, ‘Have you been to Mexico?’ I thought it would help them make connections if they could see pictures of me near Mt. Popocatépetl.”

The pilot project further makes sense, Kitts said, because local school districts have been searching for ways to help science teachers meet state standards in multicultural training. For their participation in the pilot, the teachers will earn a stipend and three graduate credit hours.

In return, they will be required to produce peer-reviewed, standards-based educational materials addressing issues of diversity, multiculturalism, social context and science content. Over the course of the next year, NIU faculty will conduct follow-up visits to the teachers’ schools and serve as mentors to Hispanic students.

The teachers will stay in NIU dormitories for the initial four days of the project, conducting field work at the university’s Lorado Taft Field Campus in Oregon, Ill. The group of science teachers and NIU faculty then will travel to central Mexico, where they’ll spend the next 11 days.

Rosa Leal-Bautista and Guadalupe Velazquez-Oliman, who both earned their Ph.D.s in geology from NIU, will join the group there. Both are natives of Puebla, Mexico.

In Mexico City, the group will participate in discussions on local water issues and natural disaster risks with faculty from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, among the nation’s premier universities. Outside the city at Mt. Popocatépetl, the schoolteachers will conduct geologic work, evaluating the future risk of ash falls, lava flows and mudflows.

The trip also will include visits to Cholula, the largest pyramid in the Americas, the bottom of which is covered by a lahar (mudflow); to Los Humeros, a geothermal field with baths fed by a sulfurous spring; and to Puebla Central School, the equivalent of a U.S. middle school.

“The American teachers will have an opportunity to meet with their Mexican counterparts and compare educational systems,” Kitts said. “Puebla Central has had an influx of Native Americans who do not speak Spanish. So whereas our teachers have students who speak English as a second language, they have students who speak Spanish as a second language. They’re facing the same kind of issues.”

NIU geologist Eugene Perry, who is co-director of the diversity project, has been conducting research in Mexico for more than two decades. He was able to provide many of the contacts to Mexican scientists.

“This really is an excellent opportunity to introduce teachers to Mexico,” he said. “We will not only expose teachers to high level scientific research being conducted by Mexican scientists but also give them a better perspective on a country that’s of major interest to their students.”

Perry said NIU will be submitting a grant proposal to run the project with a new round of teachers next year as well.