Faculty Spotlight: Irasema Ortega

by Jamie Gonzales  |   

Assistant Professor of Science Education Hometown: Maracaibo, Venezuela Fun Fact: Is of Wayuu descent. The Wayuu are the indigenous people of northwest Venezuela.

I AM UAA: Irasema Ortega

I AM UAA: Irasema Ortega, Assistant Professor of Science Education. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Science education professor Dr. Irasema Ortega has been teaching for more than 20 years, but she's quick to point out that she still has much to learn. For the last three years, she's worked on the Chevak Teacher Education Initiative, a task that's brought new friends, colleagues and mentors into her life as they collaborate to prepare teachers and fold Cup'ik ancestral knowledge into a cohesive STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) curriculum for the rural Kashunamiut School District.

This past summer, one Chevak mentor gave Irasema the chance to experience the Cup'ik teacher-student relationship from a front-row seat. At the invitation of Neva Mathias-a doll maker and basket weaver from Chevak whose work has been displayed in the Smithsonian Institute, the Fairbanks Art Museum and as part of the Alaska Native Medical Center collection-Irasema joined her and her son at fish camp.

"I was a novice and they were so patient," she said. "When I go to Chevak, whether it's outside at fish camp or observing in the classroom, there is this fluidity, this connection between the teacher and students. There is definitely this pedagogy of 'You can learn and I will take the time to teach you, and I am going to be very patient with you.'"

She felt both intimidated and honored to be facing this freshly harvested salmon with an ulu, a tool that felt awkward in her left-handed grip. "This is the fish that they are going to prepare and use to subsist in the wintertime. I was scared to death," she said.

Neva's generosity and patience as she gently corrected Irasema's technique was inspiring. She reassured her she wasn't going to ruin the fish.

"She is letting me touch this food that is for her family," Irasema said. "They provide for three other families. And yet she's letting this kass'aq take care of the fish."

Irasema also credits her friend and mentor Neva with teaching her two other important skills: how to walk on the tundra and through the mud. The trick to mud walking? "You walk really fast," she said, laughing. And if you linger and lose your boots or fall over in the slick mud, don't be afraid to laugh about it.

Whether it was salmon preparation, mud walking or Cup'ik cultural concepts, Irasema said, "I've always felt that [Neva] believed I could learn."

Translating multicultural experiences, learning from master teachers

Although she was born in the Midwest-Madison, Wisconsin-until her move to Alaska, Irasema was used to warmer climates. She grew up in her parents' native Venezuela, started her middle and high school science teaching career in Florida, then moved on to teach in urban Arizona schools before seizing the opportunity to get her Ph.D. at Arizona State University.

"Growing up, I had great science teachers. They really inspired me. I couldn't say there was a single moment or a single person, but it is a combination," Irasema said. "Even my father-he was a pharmacist, but he was also a chemistry professor-from a very early age, he shared a love of science with me."

Building on her early education and exposure to science, a vital part of her collegiate education was the opportunity to watch experienced teachers in action. At one point, Irasema was able to observe an Arizona Teacher of the Year, Colette Bos.

"I sat in the back of her Earth Science classroom for an entire year and I just took notes," she said. "She was amazing, a master teacher."

In her own classrooms, before becoming a college professor, Irasema taught middle and high school science for 18 years-general science, advanced science, biology, earth science, physical science and chemistry. Working in urban schools with high numbers of English language learners gave her the opportunity to teach ESL biology classes, too. She found herself mentoring other teachers in multicultural instruction.

"I helped teachers at my school who found it very challenging when they had students of linguistically and culturally-diverse backgrounds," she said. "Being an ESL person myself, since I learned English as a second language and also because of my training, I was able to help them."

About 10 years into her career, she began to feel like she should share her love for science and science instruction with up-and-coming teachers.

"I owed it to the profession to pass that knowledge to the future generations of teachers," she said. "That's when the idea [for doctoral study] came in and finally on year 18, I had the opportunity to start my Ph.D."

Lessons from Chevak

In 2012, Irasema was awarded the Selkregg Community Engagement & Service Learning Award, from the UAA Center for Community Engagement and Learning, to strengthen collaboration between UAA's College of Education and the Kashunamiut School District.

"The Selkregg Award was the very important seed that started the curriculum writing work. Since then, we've created a curriculum map based on subsistence," she said. "It integrates science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, not because we're imposing them in the curriculum, but because they already exist there." See this 3-minute video explanation of the curriculum mapping project that draws on traditional Cup'ik knowledge to illustrate scientific concepts.

One of the most important things she's learned from her work in Chevak is to ask questions.

To further partnerships between the university and Alaska Native communities, Irasema said, "We need to respectfully ask the people in rural communities how we can partner with them. We have our work cut out for us and we need to be willing to listen and learn and change, and people are doing that."

"The lessons learned in Chevak are going to help us as we find ways to expand to other sites in rural Alaska. Every single site, every single culture is unique. What we're learning here is to go in and ask, to collaborate."

Wild Alaska

The opportunity to collaborate with culturally diverse communities was one of the carrots that drew Irasema to UAA four years ago. And since she's arrived, the reasons to stay are as near at hand as her own backyard.

"There was a bear in my backyard-I live in Spenard-two days ago and I walked into that bear. It was about 10 feet away in my backyard and I walked into him with my dog," she said. Her dog, a Shiba Inu, remained completely silent as they quietly retreated to observe the bear from the safety of the house.

She loves to bike, hike and run on the Coastal Trail and she's making her way around Alaska, exploring and camping when she has time.

"It's a dream to be here," she said. "As long as I am a professor I will continue to work with my friends in Chevak. I have a lot to learn. It's what keeps me going. It's like the salmon going up the stream, it never stops until it gets there. I am the salmon."

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement 

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