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In Solidarity
In Solidarity

Portland State University has a long and storied history of partnering with the public in efforts that leverage the strengths of communities and the capacities of the university to conduct research and educate the population. Flagship organizations such as the Regional Research Institute for Human Services, the Social Determinants of Health Initiative, and the Center for Public Interest Design are but a few of the many programs operating at PSU that unite the institution and the people of the region to bring about positive social, political, economic, and environmental changes in the Northwest and beyond.

Similarly, the university has a tradition of implementing publicly-partnerships to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, particularly within underrepresented, underserved populations. The recently funded “Enhancing Cross-disciplinary Infrastructure Training at Oregon” (EXITO) program is just the latest in a series of initiatives working to enhance student participation and achievement in STEM disciplines in Oregon and around the Pacific Rim. Others, including the Center for Science Education, the Oregon Saturday Academy’s Apprenticeship in Science and Engineering Summer Program, the Intel Northwest Science Expo, and PSU’s Cyber Discovery Camp have provided STEM learners exciting pathways to “hands-on” educational experiences for years now.

Dr. Jean Aguilar-Valdez recently joined the faculty at PSU, and like an increasing number of new arrivals her research complements the university’s long-standing practice of engaging in community-based, participatory research as well as its wide-ranging endeavors to elevate STEM education for all students cradle-to-career. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the Graduate School of Education, Dr. Aguilar-Valdez combines critical race theory, Chicana Feminism and her experiences as a Latina, scientist, educator, feminist, activist, and scholar in examinations of inequalities in science education. She is a practitioner of “decolonizing methodologies” and the use of Testimonios in qualitative research1,2.  In education settings where she invests time and effort establishing strong relationships with the young people she works with, Dr. Aguilar-Valdez studies the ways marginalized and often undocumented middle and high school students achieve in science education and other arenas despite the enormous obstacles in their paths. An academic whose scholarship informs conversations about policy and pedagogy, Dr. Aguilar-Valdez is also a staunch ally of the students (who she refers to as her “co-participants”) whose thoughts, actions, and achievements she documents.

“I see my scholarship as activism,” said Dr. Aguilar-Valdez. “When I began teaching, I thought that because I was a Latina who had gone to college and earned a Master’s Degree in physics, I had something to impart on students about science and success. But teaching science at a bilingual, Title I middle school in East Los Angeles, I quickly learned that the students, the majority of whom were Latino, had a lot to teach me. Their experiences with issues like documentation and immigrants’ rights opened my eyes to a wider world. That humbled me and I realized that I needed to become involved with the social justice movement in education.”

After several years of teaching middle school science in California and North Carolina, Dr. Aguilar-Valdez entered a Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her dissertation, “DREAMing of Science: Undocumented Latin@s’ Testimonios Across the Borderlands of High School,” focused on high-“achieving” undocumented students with dreams of entering science (Aguilar-Valdez, 2013)3.

According to Dr. Aguilar-Valdez, as a practitioner of decolonizing methodologies she is constantly asking how her research benefits the students and communities she works with. She acknowledges that she walks between worlds in her roles as a Latina, an academic, an educator, scientist, feminist, and advocate for the young people who share so much with her and make the research possible. She leverages the strengths of each of those roles to push back against injustice and inequality in the education system and in society at large.

“One way I am able to achieve that push back in the research I do is to help the young people I work with elevate their voices,” said Dr. Aguilar-Valdez. “The Testimonio invites the students to become active participants in the study and to be heard. In their own words they relate the injustices they’ve experienced and highlight things so often overlooked because of the narrow view of science and education so many educators have: their culture, history, and traditions; the incredible knowledge they possess, and the beauty of who they are.”

As one of the newest members of the community of researchers at the university whose efforts incorporate public participation to address the need for greater understanding of the challenges facing society, Dr. Aguilar-Valdez’s work will strengthen the bonds between PSU, the people it serves, and the region while combating inequities and injustice both in and out of the classroom.

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1. The concept of “decolonizing methodologies” of Western research was fleshed out by Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her influential book Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. According to Smith, “decolonization” refers to the need to develop “a more critical understanding of the underlying assumptions, motivations and values that inform research practices” (Wilson, 2001). Underpinning that need, Smith argues, is the notion that Western research played and continues to play in implicit role in the development and propagation of Western dominated power dynamics (e.g. us/them, cultured/barbaric, colonizer/colonized, national/alien, etc.) through the collection, representation, and categorization of the “social, cultural, linguistic, and natural systems of indigenous communities around the world” (Malsbary, 2008).

2. According to Mark Zimmerman, the Testimonio, which appeared as a literary form in Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century, is “a first-person narration of socially significant experiences in which the narrative voice is that of a typical or extraordinary witness or protagonist who metonymically represents others who have lived through similar situations and who have rarely given written expression to them” (2004).

3. The terms “Latin@” and “Chican@” (the @ is pronounced “ow”) are modern Spanish language constructions combining the feminine/masculine “Latino/a,” “Chicana/o” into single, gender neutral words.

Aguilar-Valdez, J. (2013). Dreaming of Science: Undocumented Latin@s' testimonios across the borderlands of high school science. Retrieved from http://gradworks.umi.com/35/92/3592794.html
Malsbary, C. (2008). Review: Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Tuhiwai Smith. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 4(2), Article 7. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/65x1s5zb
Staehelin, I. (2010, April). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from Cultural Survival: http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/decolonizing...
Wilson, C. (2001). Review of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 12(17), 214-217.
Zimmerman, M. (2004). Testimonio. In M. S. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman, & T. F. Liao (Eds.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Social Science Research Methods (pp. 1119-1120). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412950589.n1006