New Initiative Launched to Help Prepare Students for Science Degrees

Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands launched a new mathematics initiative aimed at preparing more students to succeed in science and math disciplines, thanks to a $2.9 million U.S. Department of Education grant.

When fall semester begins Aug. 16, Highlands University students will benefit from a host of new mathematics services like a 25-computer math lab funded through the five-year-grant.

“The top priority for this grant is to increase the number of underserved students who graduate from Highlands with a STEM degree in science, technology, engineering or math,” said Edward Martínez, vice president of strategic enrollment management and principal investigator, or lead researcher, for the grant. “We know that math tends to be a big barrier for our students, with approximately 83 percent in the last 10 years needing to take a developmental algebra class that becomes a gateway for these STEM students.”

The grant also provides additional support for students preparing to become secondary education math teachers.

Martínez, who joined the Highlands faculty in 2005 as a natural resources management professor, said the new math initiative, called STEMfast, will positively benefit all students at Highlands because math is a graduation requirement.

“The STEMfast approach is to provide additional faculty development and redesign introductory, developmental math courses to be more student centered, which research shows improves learning and success,” Martínez said.

He said recruitment is another important component of the grant, with Highlands working with community colleges to increase the number of STEM students who transfer to Highlands to complete their degrees.

Jeff Houdek assumed the position of STEMfast director in May. He earned his M.A. in mathematics education from Harvard University in 2015, graduating at the top of his class, and a mathematics B.A. from the University of Texas. Houdek taught middle and high school mathematics in Las Vegas City Schools from 2011 – 2017, earning an exemplary rating from the New Mexico Department of Education.

“We worked closely with the Mathematics Department, especially Dr. Gregg Turner, to redesign introductory math courses that incorporate individualized learning software to enhance learning and skill building for important math concepts,” Houdek said.

Houdek said the new math lab is in the same building as the university’s nationally acclaimed Achieving in Research Math and Science (ARMAS) Center.

“We want a one-stop shop for our students to access STEM support. We’re training approximately 20 Highlands students to be tutors in our math lab, and these tutors will also assist in the introductory math classrooms,” said Houdek, who will also teach some of these courses.

In addition, a new entry-level math class that combines intermediate algebra and college algebra is being offered to accelerate degree completion. A science-themed freshman composition class is also new this fall semester.

Gil Gallegos, Computer Science and Mathematics Department chair, said: “This STEMfast initiative will help us recruit and retain students who are interested in STEM fields, but may have math anxiety and need more encouragement. It’s also an exciting opportunity for faculty across different disciplines to collaborate on math-related issues.”

Houdek said the Highlands community came together to support the STEMfast implementation.

“Some of the key players in this collaboration include the School of Education, School of Arts and Sciences, Academic Affairs, Academic Support, ARMAS and the Center for Teaching Excellence,” Houdek said.

Other STEMfast staff include Lorraine García, data analyst, Reyna Alvizo, community college coordinator, and Lori Vigil, administrative assistant.