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Texas AEM Debbie Montenegro conducts outreach to improve public health and access to information

Posted on 11/12/2021 at 12:02 PM by Virginia Smith

Debbie Montenegro, an AEM from Texas, says her TOP Flight experience over Kennedy Space Center was her most memorable so far as an AEM.

November 11, 2021

Meet Debbie Montenegro, an AEM from Fort Worth, Texas. She is an example of an Aerospace Education Member who is not a classroom teacher. She works for the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM R3), an office of engagement and training at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, as deputy director of a seven-state region. "I am the deputy director of R3, which conducts outreach, education, and training focused on improving public health and advancing the progress of medicine through increased access to health information," she says. Her inspirations in education came from her mother, who has taught for decades. She attributes her inspiration for hard work to her immigrant parents, who instilled  “a hard-working ethic, a reverent gratitude for the opportunity of access to education, and a deep sense of duty and integrity.” Her career roles have spanned “a chemistry laboratory intern, substitute teacher, chemistry teacher, public library assistant, the Learning Resource Center Manager at an institute for nurses, and an epidemiology research analyst in a large healthcare system." She took on her current role because she felt "this was a place where I could use my knowledge and experience to bring health information to various communities, particularly those that are under-resourced." She has had an interest in science and science fiction since a young age. Her educational philosophy of providing individualized support, she believes, can be applied outside of formal education settings. "I was able to share details on the CAP cadet program with a Spanish-speaking family," she recalls as an example of individualized support. "They had not heard about the cadet program. From personal experience, I understood that there are additional barriers to consider," she said.  “This opened the door for their child to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to join the cadets." She enjoys being an ambassador for CAP and sharing information about CAP at educational events. We asked her some questions about her career and her involvement with CAP, and her answers follow.

Tell us about your organization and your role there. 

I work at the University of North Texas (UNT) Health Science Center (HSC) at Fort Worth, in the NNLM Region 3 office (R3). I am the Deputy Director of R3, which conducts outreach, education and training focused on improving public health and advancing the progress of medicine through increased access to health information. My office serves a seven-state region: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. In addition to education and training, we offer funding opportunities for professional development or outreach programming relating to health information, made available to educators, scientists, librarians and more. Our office is funded by the National Library of Medicine, an institute of the NIH.

As the Deputy Director, I co-manage this multi-state regional office and conduct outreach, manage grants and offer training opportunities in health science information programming. In addition, I am very honored to have been selected by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) back in 2018 as an appointed expert volunteer called a NASA Solar System Ambassador and have served from 2019 onward. I am also proud to be a Civil Air Patrol Aerospace Education Member (AEM) since January 2018! 

What does a typical week in your role look like?

A typical week in NNLM can really run the gamut. I spend time on curriculum preparation, submitting proposals, preparing for presentations (content and technical aspects), national working meetings for initiatives, and I co-present a program to families at a library. There is also time spent creating connections, making calls, and setting up site visits to meet people in their communities. We also meet with institutions to partner alongside of, to reach out and serve communities across our seven states. This often requires integrating across subject matters. One example is when I partnered with a university outreach librarian and a middle school science teacher. We conducted a program in which both space and health aspects were incorporated. It was called Astronaut Academy: Health and Exercise, and we taught it at several local public libraries and apartment community centers, during the Summer of Space to honor the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. As a Deputy Director, I have additional extensive responsibilities in administration and grant management at a regional level. This can include collaborating with partners in multiple states to conduct their local programs, running funding opportunities, being up to date on federal policies, managing personnel and perpetual process improvement work. My favorite part about being in leadership is that I get to encourage others to grow and guide them to reach their own goals. I am a dedicated life-long learner, and so I enjoy participating in STEM events to impart knowledge but also to network, explore and learn. 

How many years have you been an educator and why did you  become an educator? 

I am an educator, scientist, librarian and more. I’ve now been in an educator or informal educator role since 2008, along with a wide variety of STEM experiences. I have been a chemistry laboratory intern, substitute teacher, chemistry teacher, public library assistant, the Learning Resource Center Manager at an institute for nurses, and an epidemiology research analyst in a large healthcare system. I became a science educator because I have a passion for the dissemination of scientific information.  

Tell us about your early life and how that shaped your decision to become an educator.

My mother worked as a teacher for decades. My immigrant parents (from Guatemala) instilled in me a hard-working ethic, a reverent gratitude for the opportunity of access to education, and a deep sense of duty and integrity. Pretty quickly, when I started to go to school, it became evident that I had a love and knack for science and mathematics and a yearning to help others to understand it as well.

Debbie Montenegro in family portrait as a youth

Debbie Montenegro attributes her hard work ethic and sense of gratitude, duty and integrity to her parents -- immigrants from Guatemala.

I had an awesome 5th grade science teacher who inspired me and whom I will never forget: Mr. Hambrick. Along with my own Mami, who continues to be a strong and formidable force as a mother and educator, I had role models to admire. I remember one exciting day in elementary school, we got to dissect a cow heart. I was so excited and intrigued to see a real heart. Little did I know that in my later 20s I would work in cardiovascular epidemiology research. This really speaks to the crucial role of mentors and educators; we forge a path and create a space for our pupils to follow.

During my free time in my formative years, I loved to read science fiction books and depended a lot on our public library system. I hold the function of libraries in high esteem. I would read all the science fiction books they had at my local branch, so my mother would drive us to the San Antonio Central Library. Growing up I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Wars with my siblings. I also really liked the Bill Nye the Science Guy program, which, in retrospect, was akin to a supplemental virtual education program. 

I graduated high school Summa Cum Laude and a year early. I spent my free time volunteering for the community and at church. The same was true through college. Thinking back, it was only natural that I honed in on outreach and education in most of the positions that I have held. Even when I was an Epidemiology Research Analyst, I took over the duty of training the many interns that would cycle through every year. 

Why do you work in the Aerospace Education/STEM area and why is STEM important?

Almost five years ago I came to NNLM office at UNT HSC because I felt like this was a place where I could use my knowledge and experience to bring health information to various communities, particularly those that are under-resourced, and I took to my work with an adventurous spirit.

What is so important about STEM to me, is that I believe in a long vision. I have hope that humans can use science to foster an enduring society in which we are able to sustain scientific missions of exploration. It is this same pull to scientific exploration and advancement that has guided the education and outreach that I have done over the course of my life. We have a large community of incredibly passionate people from all backgrounds who are excited about STEM and what it could mean for humanity’s future. I want to encourage others to pursue STEM and their inventive ideas of what can create a better, peaceful world; from the environment to medicine, biology to avionics, to space and beyond. 

What is your educational philosophy?

In a nutshell: providing access to information and individualized support. I have found this philosophy to hold true beyond formal education. I’ve always felt an innate drive to help people learn, grow and expand their horizons. There were a lot of programs I found out about as an adult, that I really wish I had known about as a child. This is why access and support are so important. It is my aspiration to help reduce barriers. A first step is providing access to information, followed by providing individualized support. 

I was able to share details on the CAP cadet program with a Spanish-speaking family. They had not heard about the cadet program. From personal experience, I understood that there are additional barriers to consider. What are the strings attached? What is the cost? Am I smart enough? Will we be welcome? I relayed information about CAP cadets in Spanish and provided further as-needed guidance as well as letting them know about financial assistance opportunities. This opened the door for their child to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to join the cadets.  

There are a unique set of barriers that I have overcome. I look to future generations, and I wish to help them overcome these obstacles and reduce the friction for them to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Posing in front of a NASA exhibit

Please list awards/honors/achievements you have received as an educator that you would like to include. 

When I taught chemistry, our department received the District Awards for Teacher Excellence (the DATE award). As the manager of the Learning Resource Center at a nursing school, I received the Student’s Choice Award from the DNI Student Council. 

How many years have you been involved in Civil Air Patrol? 

Almost 4 years now!

How did you get involved in the Civil Air Patrol AEM program?

My passion has always been centered in science, specifically the fields of space, health and aviation. I was on a tour of providing trainings at several conferences in 2017 with a class on space health, and that’s where I attended my first CAP session. I got to meet the CAP Aerospace/STEM Education Outreach staff. I was also told by other educators that the TOP flight sessions were amazing, and they were right! I will never forget my TOP flight. I became a CAP AE member in January 2018.

Please describe the Civil Air Patrol programs you participate in and why you participate.

I take part as an Ambassador/Outreach volunteer and spread the word of the CAP AE and cadet programs. As my work already involves outreach, I have been able to take CAP materials with me to educational events and spread the word about CAP to educators and students alike. How amazing is it to be able to learn how to fly at so young an age? It’s incredible. 

Earlier this year I was contacted by an elementary teacher from another state in the Midwest who teaches dual language, mostly to native Spanish speakers (many are from Central America). She wanted them to see that they have endless possibilities and wanted more Latina stories to share. She asked if I could write up my family history and my personal journey. She shared my newsletter with 125 students in 4th grade and even more students from 5th grade, for their aviation week activities. 

My most memorable CAP moment was the Teacher Orientation Program (TOP) flight at the SPACE conference in Florida. It was easily one of the most fantastic experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Our CAP pilot was a great advocate for aviation, and I could tell he truly enjoyed the gift of flight and made our flight experience that much more exciting. I will never forget seeing Kennedy Space Center and the SpaceX Starship from above. One must be motivated and passionate themselves before sharing with others, and the TOP flights absolutely fuel that fire. Go forth and share that flame!

What is the best advice you have for a new AEM working with CAP programs and materials?

Don’t be afraid to reach out and network at group events. 1) Greet people and ask questions, you never know who might be interested in becoming a partner. 2) If they seem amenable, get their business card or contact information. 3) Follow up within the next week with a message that includes a reminder of where you met and what you discussed about potential partnerships. 

It might surprise some people, but this is not something that came naturally to me. My boss pushed me well outside of my comfort zone and encouraged me in this. Not all attempts work out, but all you need are a few to make a difference. Sometimes, people would respond when I reached out to them. From just introducing myself to people, I developed some great partnerships. Many opened doors, from teaching at community centers and libraries, to co-presenting at conferences. We even invited each other to become expert speakers in our respective fields. Collaboration is an essential part of outreach. 

Please tell an anecdote of a rewarding experience you have had using CAP programs:

Recruiting a cadet for the first time is a happy and exciting experience for both parties. It is a continued joy to see cadets progress in CAP. My cousin was promoted to Senior Master Sergeant in her last meeting with CAP and was awarded Cadet of the Year at her Civil Air Patrol squadron. She’s since started her new journey attending Johns Hopkins University this fall. I’m so, so proud of her! 

Is there anything we didn't ask that you'd like to say? 

The pandemic has made education, outreach and health especially difficult the past approximately 20 months, and it's required a great deal of creativity and resilience from so many teachers, librarians, informal educators as well as those working in public and clinical health. Many of us are suffering from the effects of burnout, myself included. One area of particular interest in my work is addressing access to information concerning mental health and self-care in these challenging times. This is a start to a journey of rebuilding for many. I know that you all are working so hard to take care of your students. From one educator to another, this is a reminder to please be sure to check in on yourself and care for your mind as well.  

Flying the plane with a CAP pilot flying the plane during a TOP flight

More photos from the TOP Flight.

 

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