Even when very busy, community engagement never really takes a backseat for Alexis Racelis. Working with farmers along the border of Texas and Mexico, Racelis helps develop and evaluate conservation agriculture practices to improve soil health, and thus increase both crop productivity and climate change benefits (through better carbon storage). “[Community engagement is] how I was trained. I do participatory action research. And in food and water security, these are issues we have to address now,” he says. “Engagement is key. It’s not necessarily something we can just do on the side… We can’t get it done unless the farmers and other stakeholders participate.”
Alongside the farmers he works with, Racelis tries to figure out how to direct scientific resources to benefit both them and the researchers. He is a AAAS 2018-19 Leshner Public Engagement Fellow and associate professor of agroecology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and also served as the inaugural associate dean of community engagement in UTRGV’s College of Sciences, so engagement has been part of his job in a variety of ways. He also received an NSF award, Building Capacity: Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM Through Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Community Engagement, which has dovetailed well with the goals of his Leshner fellowship to promote institutional change.
Through the NSF grant, Racelis and his colleagues are offering professional development to 12 faculty members each year for the five years of the grant. This includes providing workshops on public engagement, helping them develop public engagement plans for working with community partners, and developing “culturally responsive curriculum” for a new set of community-engaged classes. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is a minority-serving institution -- 91% of its students are Hispanic – and so the training includes discussions of the culture and history of the region and its people. They meet with various community partners and learn about possibilities for mutually beneficial work. To encourage participation in the program, the program recognizes these faculty members at the college’s annual research conference and give them plaques and a stipend.
Racelis and his colleagues are also evaluating whether there is better retention and sense of belonging in STEM among students in these community-engaged classes. Early data suggest students sense that the faculty member cares more about their learning and wellbeing in these courses than in other courses taught by the same faculty member. Racelis and his team also hope this program will affect the way these students do their own research when they graduate, as well.
Racelis has been involved with other ways the College of Sciences is rewarding engagement by faculty members, including planning a new website that highlights community engagement projects. They are finding ways to integrate engagement with scholarship and teaching, and not just as part of the “service” category. The university itself has also added checkboxes for faculty when submitting packages for promotion and tenure to note whether a research project involves engagement, and if it’s locally relevant.
A new dean for the College of Sciences started in August, so Racelis hopes she will keep up the momentum of the work they have been doing. He says one of the benefits of the Leshner fellowship is being able to show his colleagues that an emphasis on engagement is not just a college and university priority , but is a goal that is “shared with organizations like AAAS and the National Science Foundation, who are putting more and more importance on augmenting the broader impact of our work as scientists through engagement.”
Racelis also found the fellowship year enriching because it “provides that larger sense of momentum that keeps you going. I’m sure we have all had that moment where we wish we could just step back and let someone else take over. But it helps to hear someone say, ‘You are doing great job, keep going. Let me know how I can help.’ That is very useful.”
As an advisor to the recent AAAS initiative, How We Respond: Community Responses to Climate Change, Racelis was also recently interviewed for the September 20 AAAS Member Update.
The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to a cohort of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.