College of Education faculty member earns coveted early career award to study experiences of Latino youth in math
Carlos Nicolas Gomez, assistant professor in Clemson’s College of Education, recently received the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program grant, often referred to as the NSF CAREER award.
Gomez will use the five-year grant to characterize and analyze the developing mathematical identities of Latinx students transitioning from elementary to middle grades mathematics. Gomez prefers the gender-neutral term Latinx.
Gomez said he is interested in how mathematics and language intersect, especially for students who are pulling double duty learning math and the English language for the first time. He said he hopes getting information firsthand from students will make it that much more valuable for educators teaching diverse populations of students.
“Researchers usually talk to teachers or administrators to get their feedback on working with this population, but there is almost always bias, and we can only take their word for what they say they’re doing,” Gomez said. “I want to develop a way to empower these students, and I think that using this grant to help them tell their stories directly in this area of learning will help better illustrate their experiences.”
Gomez believes that all research is autobiographical, so he’s well aware that this research comes from a personal place for him. He immigrated to El Paso, Texas from Chile at the age of four. Even though students in the school he attended were mostly Hispanic, he still experienced the socializing aspects that were inherent to U.S. schools at the time—and still exist, according to Gomez.
“For a long time in my life I went by Nick, and after a while I started wondering why when my family has always called me Nico,” Gomez said. “It happened because a teacher simply said ‘I’ll call you Nick’ and that just stuck. It’s not what my family or friends call me, so I stopped allowing myself to be introduced in that way.”
Gomez said when he came to Clemson and saw the low number of Latinx students in schools in the area and the low percentage of them that ended up becoming teachers, he became more interested in this topic. Low numbers of students and teachers who are Latinx makes already difficult conversations about race or culture even more challenging for teachers, so he hopes that amplifying the stories of Latinx students will help shed light on their experiences for educators.
Although Gomez has not yet zeroed in on a location for the research, he will spend the first year of the project conducting a “community climate investigation” that will see him talking to parents and community leaders to learn the history of the area he will study. He said understanding the context of the area students live in before they even get to school will help inform the entirety of the research.
Gomez will then identify around eight students to follow over the course of the second and third years of the project. Over the course of two years as the students move through the fifth and sixth grade, Gomez will conduct regular classroom observations and interviews with the students as well as their families and teachers.
“This is a particularly important time for all students pertaining to math,” Gomez said. “Students become part of a larger overall school population, and around this time they often transition to a specialist math teacher. It’s a great deal of change on top of adolescence, so all of a sudden there’s a lot more of those ‘who am I really’ questions for this age group.”
During the fourth year of the research, Gomez will create an educational component to accompany the research. He plans to produce mini documentaries capturing direct feedback from the Latinx students that can be shared with educators interested in the topic. The fifth and final year of research will involve wrap up and dissemination of the results.
Jeff Marshall, associate dean for research and graduate studies in Clemson’s College of Education, said that Gomez’s recognition with the NSF CAREER award is a rarity, both for scholars in the field of education and in the college itself. Gomez is only the second faculty member from the college to ever receive the grant.
“Dr. Gomez is focusing on research that is critical to moving the field of mathematics education forward by making it more inclusive,” Marshall said. “This is an example of our faculty on a national level leading the conversation on an important topic; it demonstrates the caliber of the faculty in our college and our college’s commitment to enhancing the education and development of all students.”
Gomez said that too often people see mathematics education as simple: there’s only one right or wrong answer, so the act of teaching it shouldn’t be affected by race or gender or other societal issues. Gomez takes issue with this. He says schools are inherently social places, so all the societal ideas about what school or mathematics should be filter down to the classroom, inequities and all.
In a mathematics class like any other, the identities of the students in front of the educator are of paramount importance.
“I just I want teachers to see the brilliance of all students,” Gomez said. “I ask my pre-service teachers if all students are brilliant, and if their immediate answer is not ‘yes,’ then I find that to be problematic. All students are mathematically brilliant, and it’s [the teacher’s] job to determine how to help them see it. I hope this research helps other educators understand this particular student a little better.”