Javier Garcia, the STEM director at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Office of Community Relations, has been involved with STEM education since before science education became so widely associated with that form of learning.
In about 2000, STEM began to gain wide acceptance as an acronym for instruction in science, technology, engineering and math, according to the Education Week blog Curriculum Matters.
Back in 1995 the University of Texas at Brownsville, which later became part of UTRGV, hired Garcia for a program called South Texas Engineering, Math and Sciences, or STEMS. Throughout the years, the program has reinvented itself to become the community relations office it is today, located behind the university bookstore on UTRGV’s Brownsville campus.
Garcia graduated from Tarleton State University in 1992 with a degree in geology and taught science at Port Isabel before the opportunity at UTB came along. He said the new job turned out to be a great way to inspire young students about the sciences and get them thinking about science careers.
Garcia connected with Lawrence Lof, director of El Rancho Cielo, the UTB research center in the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in the Sierra Madre of Northern Tamaulipas. The collaboration resulted in hundreds of schoolchildren from the Rio Grande Valley making trips to Mexico’s famous cloud forest. Many of them had never been outside the Valley, and some of them ended up pursuing careers in the sciences, he said.
Funding ran out in 1999, but Garcia then made a connection with NASA to take students to the reserve. It proved pivotal in keeping the program going.
“Getting kids in an outdoor laboratory was important to building their perceptions about college and their self-confidence,” Garcia said.
Later on, when NASA’s Mars Rovers were in the news, “we took advantage and started NASA Space Science Days,” at UTB for fifth- and eighth-graders to learn science, Garcia said.
Later, UTB and Texas Southmost College students started a STEMS mentor club, which took charge of NASA Space Science Days, he said.
“The goal was to inspire kids to do science, and at the same time the college kids gained self-confidence.” It served as “an excellent introduction to science and engineering,” Garcia said.
Garcia is an avid runner and a member of the Brownsville Marathoners running club. He lists his biggest accomplishment as having crossed the Grand Canyon from rim to rim with a group of students — from south to north one year and from north to south the following year.
His motto has been “don’t take no for an answer,” and he said he has always surrounded himself with “people with a passion for helping students.”