Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2010

Dr. Hector Ibarra

Proving educators can make a difference

Dr. Hector Ibarra Milken Educator (IA '93)Dr. Hector Ibarra (IA ‘93) is not one to give up without a fight. In fact, he’s not really even one to give up. After 34 years of teaching, he retired from teaching at West Branch at the end of the 2009-10 school year. Not that that’s slowed him down any. He still teaches middle school students on a contractual basis at the Belin Blank Talented and Gifted Center at the University of Iowa and his illustrious credits include a board position on NAGB, (National Assessment Governing Board), which sets guidelines for NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). He is also the 2010-11 Ambassador of Public Health and Environment at Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory--not bad for someone who might have been a lost cause if he hadn’t found his way in fourth grade when, fittingly, his teacher set him straight.

We caught up with Ibarra this past summer after an event that would have been an exciting event for anyone. He’d just returned from taking three students to Costa Rica.

So why were you in Costa Rica?

I’m the director of Learning Without Limits science club and I have over 20 students working on projects in teams of two to four students. I advise students that work on projects in the community and provide solutions to environmental, health and energy issues.

They investigate an issue they select and use the Scientific Method to determine what the problem is, solutions to the issue, and then carry out experiments and surveys to obtain measurable results to prove or disprove their hypothesis. In many instances, the solutions proposed by students have made and will continue to make a huge impact and difference in Iowa.

One of the teams in 2010-11 was the second-place national winner for the Siemens Foundation's We Can Change the World challenge. Costa Rica was part of their reward for winning the contest. The other part was each of the three students received $7,500 in scholarship money.

The project was on radon. Right now, radon has been around a long time and the public awareness just isn’t there. For example, there are many skeptics who don’t believe that radon causes lung cancer. This is mostly because many of the initial studies were done with coal miners, who were breathing the radon present in the mines. It’s difficult to prove that radon in homes is the cause of lung cancer in the United States.

I have a group of kids who are continuing to work on the radon issue. I would imagine something big is going to happen just because new data is coming out. Utah, for example, has one of the lowest numbers of cigarette smokers, yet their lung cancer is pretty high. So they attribute that to the radon levels present in the state.

[The students’] studies involved using electronic radon detectors to measure the radon levels in homes during the winter. Radon levels are the highest when homes are closed up. The open-air furnaces create a pressure difference between inside and outside the house, forcing the radon gas that’s in the ground to enter the house through cracks and sump holes in the basement.

I know you’ve worked with passing state legislation before. Is this something you might take to that level as well?

Actually, we are. A bill was drafted. Sometimes when bills are drafted, they take at least two years to make their way through in terms of getting people on board. And then you find out different things about how to go about making the necessary changes to get the bill passed.

For instance, in Iowa, regulations for radon are, in a way, prohibitive because Iowa has a Home Rule (and this is something the kids learned through the whole process). What that means is that legislative action can’t really occur. You have to go to each of the municipalities--and there are close to 900 in the state--and go to the Home Builders Associations and ask them to adopt and accept these identification systems in the homes.

What you think is easy and beneficial for people to do isn’t always true. There are lots of laws that are aimed at not having government tell people what to do. What I have learned is there are many things that should be done because it’s the right thing to do. One of these involves protecting the environment. The cost is far greater to fix the problem afterward.

Do you have any tips on keeping your students motivated so that they keep fighting?

We’ve had so much success over the past nine years, so that, in itself, is a motivator. The key is to get kids who want to work [on a cause] … finding kids who want to do these year after year is challenging. The main reason is the amount of time that is required. A project begins in July and ends in March.

Dr. Hector Ibarra (IA '93) and his students work on another science project. This one is on food waste diversion.

Are all of the students who are involved in these projects ones who want go onto science careers?

Most of them, it seems, want to become engineers. That, in itself, is a very good thing. I used to have quite a few who went into medical, or health-related, fields. The key is to keep these kids going in terms of looking at college. We have some who are interested in policy and they might head that way into the legislative arena. That would be a pretty positive thing. (laughs).

You received a 2008 U.S. DOE Classroom (Department of Education) fellowship, which can either be completed in the classroom or in Washington, D.C. Tell us about the projects you worked on with the fellowship.

The biggest one that I was working on was technology. America is so far behind in terms of implementing plans that can be used nationwide.

I also worked on inquiry teaching approaches that utilized higher order thinking skills. Inquiry teaching was something that I was doing with my master’s program and Ph.D. way back before it was the “in” thing. I began that process in 1987. When the national standards came out in 1998, inquiry was one of the major tenants and I’d already been doing it for a decade.

It is fortunate that I was in a master’s program where I was challenged to do that. I might not have liked it at the time, but it definitely changed the way I taught for the better.

How did it change the way you taught?

Well, I used to think I was doing a really good job. I was a classroom teacher and there was more of the philosophy of the teacher dispensing the information, versus getting the information from the student. And inquiry is having students do the work. Teachers are facilitators. They move away from cookbook experiments and towards experiments that require students to create solutions to solving the problem. Students find there is no one single way to complete the tasks as they use their creativity to arrive at solutions.

But the problem with inquiry is that it deals with abstract thinking and sixth graders are concrete thinkers. They like to know what’s happening, whereas abstract concepts aren’t logical ideas for the brain to link together. In other words, teachers have to work at trying to add structure to the lesson in order to facilitate the success of the students or they get frustrated. The frustration is a challenging type of mode, but it has to have success.

Now you’re a member of NAGB and you happen to be a member at such a pivotal and political time in education. Are there certain issues that you think all schools should focus on?

There are two national standards that are being developed. The Common Core State Standards and the next generation national science standards (set for release in 2012). Over 41 states have agreed to implement both of these standards. The next generation standards strongly emphasize the NAEP framework. The science frameworks include life science, earth and space science, and physical science. Changes on NAEP assessments are also being made by adding Hands on Tasks and Interactive Computer Tasks questions. These type of test questions are aimed at increasing cognitive skills that are going to be tested and trying to have national testing that revolves around the NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card and correlating test questions.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) will conduct two special studies. One is linking the eight-grade mathematics and science results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The second is linking the NAEP results that are set for release in March 2012 and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reading tests in December 2012. NCES administers the assessment, develops the test questions and the scoring, as well as conducts analysis and reports the findings.

The questions include constructive responses that are inquiry oriented, meaning they’re more in the cognitive arena and trying to get an understanding of what do students really know and are able to do. And if teachers have an understanding of what is going to be measured, then they can implement some of these test questions into their lessons and their curriculum. NAEP’s website has sample test questions that have been released. Teachers can use many of the questions and see how their students do.

Some of the test results that are going to be released in the spring of 2012 are the Hands On Tasks (HOTs) assessments. They use science equipment and supplies to do the experiments and answer questions. NAEP is designing these experiments to provide another tool to measure how students do at solving problems. It’s the first research data of its kind.

And then, in the near future, NAEP will include another new addition: Interactive Computer Tasks (ICTs). These will be interactive simulated computer experiments. Students will have to manipulate (change) variables as they design the experiment in order to answer the questions. The tests are designed to have students think about what is occurring and to arrive at solutions. There is the need for teachers to implement this type of thinking into their curriculum.

Milken Educators Shannon Garrison (CA '08), left, and Dr. Hector Ibarra (IA '93), both of whom are members of the National Assessment Governing Board.

What do you think your role is as a NAGB teacher representative? How does this influence NAGB’s decisions?

The biggest part of my role is to present ideas and to review what has been developed. If somebody brings forth a point, I might have a different viewpoint on it and can present data to prove or disprove it. [Being one of the few science experts means] we’re counted on to provide that expertise information that keeps the questions we’re approving in line with NAEP framework and philosophy.

I’m also on an ad hoc committee that deals with parental engagement: how to get parents more involved in helping their children to ensure that children are doing the best they can on the NAEP tests. By increasing public awareness about the importance of students doing their best, the ad hoc committee believes that the students’ scores will show a dramatic increase in how American student scores compare to the international scores.

How has the Milken Award changed your career?

As all Milken recipients, I’m grateful to Lowell and Michael Milken because their generosity has made a huge impact in my life. I was in the first group of Iowa teachers to receive the award. I had no knowledge about what the Award was. In fact, when Lowell called, I thought it was someone joking.

Milken recipients have a great deal to be thankful for--being recognized sets in motion the impetus for life-changing experiences. How far teachers go is dependent on their desire to improve learning opportunities for their students. I choose to get more involved and look for ways for my students to become active learners. Receiving the Award causes teachers to say they are moving in the right direction; our creative and different teaching approaches to improving student learning is being noticed.

Read more about Dr. Hector Ibarra (IA '93). Learn more about Dr. Ibarra's work by emailing him at


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