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UTA biology student wins research poster award at national UTeach conference

Sara Mate with David Sparks, UTA assistant professor in the College of Education and Mate’s faculty mentor.
Sara Mate with David Sparks, UTA assistant professor in the College of Education and Mate’s faculty mentor.

Sara Mate, a UTA senior in biology and UTeach Arlington student, received the top prize in the research poster competition at the 12th Annual UTeach National Conference, held May 22-24 in Austin.

Mate’s poster was titled “To STEM or NOT to STEM: Why African-American and African International Students Choose (Or Do Not Choose) STEM Fields". Her research explored some of the reasons for low participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by black students, and offered some possible solutions for improving on those numbers.

A panel of judges selected Mate’s poster as the top entry in a field of widely varying topics by UTeach students from around the United States. Mate received guidance in her project from David Sparks, UTA assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education.

“When I won the award, I was shocked and a little in awe of the achievement,” she said. “I did not necessarily enter the poster session in hopes of winning, but more so in hopes of evoking provocative questions in people and challenging them to come up with ways in which to better include African-Americans in STEM-related fields of study and possibly implementing a plan of some sort to deliver that.

“I entered the poster session in hopes of gaining knowledge from other people, especially educators, and absorbing their years of experience and seeing what I could learn from them on how to approach this issue we have in society today.”

Sara Mate receives award for first place in the UTeach National Conference Poster Session
Sara Mate, left, receives her award for first place in the UTeach National Conference Poster Session from Michael Marder, UTeach executive director, and Ronda Brandon, chief academic officer of the National Math + Science Initiative. Photo courtesy of Brett Buchanan.

Mate said that she noticed in high school that the percentage of black students taking science and math classes relative to other subjects was small. When she arrived at UTA, the percentage was larger, but still not high.

Mate said she is grateful that so many people – including Michael Marder, UTeach executive director and co-founder of the original UTeach program at UT Austin in 1997 – stopped by at the conference to talk with her about her poster, adding that it made her feel that her voice was being heard.

Greg Hale, UTeach Arlington co-director, assistant dean of science and recipient of the UTeach STEM Education Association’s (USEA) 2018 Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award, said that Mate’s award was well-deserved and added that her poster focused on an important topic in STEM education.

“Sara’s poster was pretty compelling, and it attracted a lot of attention at the conference,” Hale said. “I was especially happy to see that several Austin tech industry representatives that attended the conference spent more than 30 minutes discussing the work with Sara.”

The research Mate conducted for the project included devising a survey of five questions about why so few black students are involved in STEM-related fields of study. She surveyed 100 African-American and African students at UTA in spring 2018.

“The results that I found dealt with many of these students feeling very underrepresented,” Mate said. “The majority of them knew what the acronym STEM stood for, but did not feel very connected to it because they felt as though it wasn't promoted enough, or at least not mentioned enough to them.”

Some of the students who took the survey offered possible solutions, including holding workshops throughout the academic year specifically aimed at black students to help them strengthen their science and math skills; having a booth to promote UTeach Arlington and STEM-related studies at the UTA Activity Fair Day, held at the beginning of each fall and spring semester; and hosting events throughout the year for these programs to better publicize them and include more people in them.

“The attention my poster received made me really feel important and heard, which were among the concerns I heard from the African-American students I surveyed,” she said. “Their concern was that they felt very underrepresented when it came to STEM, and here I was finally getting that chance to be heard and, in a way, representing them. So, when I ended up winning the award, it was just an amazing feeling to know that I had been heard and taken seriously and that this could possibly lead to bigger things.”

Mate grew up in Irving and Roanoke and graduated from the STEM Academy at Northwest High School in Justin. She became interested in biology through a fascination with how the human body works.

“Biology can be used to both our advantage and disadvantage and it's all about how we manipulate it, so it is cool to see how certain vaccines are created to help fight a disease or how a heart pacemaker is constructed to help someone live, or even the foods that we consume and knowing their genetic makeup and what effects they have on the human body,” she said.

Mate plans to graduate in December with a B.S. in Biology and a teacher certification, and plans to go into teaching.