Daniela Rimer arrived at Rice University in August of 2004 excited and intimidated by her bioengineering courses.
“I was lucky; my dad was a professor, and my mom was a doctor when we immigrated to the United States. I attended high-quality college-prep schools but completed no courses, programs, or activities in coding or other engineering aspects,” she said.
“At Rice, I met people who’d had even fewer opportunities. They looked like me but did not have my experiences. I was inspired to pursue opportunities to teach science in underrepresented student schools to influence people like me. I am driven to build bridges for students and families who don’t consider college an option or know which kinds of classes will best help them prepare for majors and careers in engineering, science, and technology.”
Daniela enrolled and completed increasingly difficult engineering classes, finding support from other underrepresented engineers through the Rice chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). Her roles as outreach coordinator and president of SHPE allowed her to work closely with SHPE peers like Maria Martinez and Tony Castilleja, who shared a passion for tutoring and mentoring students at Title I schools such as Austin High School.
Seven miles and a world away from Rice, Austin High School was filled with students from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods where English was usually a second language. It was here – in 2006 – that Martinez, Castilleja, and Rimer set up the first SHPE tutoring program and recruited other SHPE members to help tutor and mentor AHS students.
“Initially, we focused on freshman and sophomores, helping with homework and science fair projects,” said Rimer. “My primary goal was to show students at Austin and in the Third Ward that kids just like them went to college and became engineers. Rice was in their backyard, and yet we talked to students who hadn’t heard of it, hadn’t considered college or even STEM-related careers.”
“Working with those students was life-changing. I loved the experience, and we reshaped the program the following year to help students discover and pursue their interests in science, engineering, mathematics, and analytical problem-solving. The DREAM program is still alive and well at Rice and remains one of my proudest accomplishments as president of SHPE.”
The Austin experience also shaped Daniela’s career plans. She realized that high school was often too late to begin laying an academic foundation for STEM majors and careers. She also noticed that dual-language learners faced additional barriers to academic success as early as elementary school.
“Recognizing these challenges – needing to lay STEM-foundations earlier and providing sound STEM experiences, especially for non-native English speakers – shifted my career to teaching elementary science and dual-language Kindergarten and second-grade,” said Rimer.
“The Kindergarten classes were eye-opening. Teaching in a dual-language environment with such young students revealed their openness to differences in each other. They seemed to move easily into teamwork; the English-speaking students depended on the Spanish speakers to help them learn and grow their skills in Spanish and vice versa, all while mastering new concepts in math and science.”
Rimer’s ability to communicate new concepts was honed by her SHPE tutoring and mentoring hours, where she developed explanations that would resonate with individual students from a variety of backgrounds. She also learned to convey complicated ideas through courses like her BIOE undergraduate research course, where she worked with a Baylor College of Medicine investigator and gave presentations about her project to audiences of peers, faculty members, and industry representatives. Her medical Spanish class at Rice also provided the vocabulary and practice she needed to fluently discuss concepts in both languages.
She said, “Learning to talk about complicated STEM ideas and concepts in English and Spanish was both challenging and rewarding, but it felt natural to me. Connecting to learners in their native language removes more barriers than one might think.”
As much as she loved her students, Daniela was not immune to the increased stress on educators working through the pandemic. She’d grown frustrated by standardized testing goals that seemed to drive public school curriculum decisions and limit students’ opportunities to have the authentic experiences that provided the foundation of her academic approach. Her unique engineering background, combined with her elementary science and dual language teaching experiences, made her an ideal candidate for the Department of Defense STEM program hosted by the Texas Military Department at Camp Mabry in downtown Austin.
“At STARBASE Austin, fifth graders from around Austin and Central Texas spend five days in STEM-related classes and activities. For many of our students, it is the first time they have visited a military base or downtown Austin, the first time they’ve met a soldier or Department of Defense employee, many of whom look just like them. Those opportunities open their eyes to new possibilities for their future,” Rimer said.
“STEM activities and classes help foster interest in learning more about these areas and set the stage for harder concepts they’ll be learning in middle school. For many students, it is the first time they are taught about STEM concepts by a native Spanish speaker.”
Rimer said one way the staff provides students with a new learning environment is by using call signs instead of standard name tags. Daniela’s call sign is Fuerza, a Spanish word with multiple meanings (force and strength), representing her love of physics and her attitude towards female, particularly Latina, engineers and scientists. To illustrate her name tag, she has an astronaut-clad Rosie the Riveter with her iconic speech bubble “We Can Do It” next to her ‘Fuerza’ call sign.
“I tell my students to have fun with the lessons. As they become engaged, they begin to see the benefits of learning about science and technology. The STARBASE experience introduces them to experiences like building bridges using an Engineering Design Process, writing blocks of code and learning about crime scene investigations. The rigor of these topics is daunting. However, the students have fun exploring new ideas.”
When students return to their regular fifth-grade classes following their STARBASE week, they have a stronger foundation in STEM-related concepts. They are better prepared for their next stage of learning in these areas, and they often have new ideas about service opportunities in their communities. Some students will continue learning through DoD-sponsored after-school programs or summer camps. Hopefully, some will choose to teach or return as STARBASE instructors.
This August, 18 years after Rimer arrived at Rice, she is preparing her classroom for the nearly two thousand students who will participate from schools in Austin and the surrounding areas. Daniela looks forward to seeing some familiar faces.
She said, “I know I will see some of the students I taught in Kindergarten come through our STARBASE classes. Last semester, I slid my mask aside for a second so a few of them could see my face, and they were so excited. Seeing my students come full circle makes my teacher’s heart happy. I tell them, ‘Remember all that science we learned in Kindergarten? This is where it was leading you!’ I know they will continue exploring STEM ideas and classes even after they leave STARBASE.
“One of my former DREAM students passed the bar in Houston. She is the first person in her family to graduate from college. Now she is a lawyer who travels the world – all things that were unimaginable to her when she was in grade school. These are the outcomes I aspired to when I began working with students to help underrepresented students work through what can seem like miles of red tape. To help students who are like me find organizations like STARBASE and SHPE where they can explore new ideas, align with mentors, and share support with peers who will champion and encourage them as they grow and face new and daunting challenges.”