Uchenna Emenaha: Creating connections to advance equity in STEM education
From a young age, Uchenna Emenaha’s family emphasized the importance of getting an education and made her feel comfortable and confident in her ability to pursue higher learning. Emenaha knows that many students do not have this same feeling of self-assurance in the classroom, and this is largely what inspired her to become an educator. She now works to build connections with her own students and create a feeling of belonging in the classroom for everyone, regardless of their background.
Emenaha, an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, strives to create these teacher-student connections using culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP), particularly in secondary-level STEM education. CRP is a research-based teaching approach that aims to foster and support students’ unique backgrounds, identities and strengths to cultivate a more engaging and accessible learning experience. It is centered around three key components: believing that all students can succeed, utilizing students’ lived experiences in the classroom and supporting students’ sociopolitical consciousness.
“In order to be a culturally responsive instructor, you must really embody the framework and be reflective in your teaching practices,” Emenaha said. “We all have certain ideas and unconscious biases that we’ve developed throughout our lives, and these internalizations can influence our teaching methods, grading, or class participation without us even realizing it. One semester, for example, I had class full of boys and assumed they would be rowdier than my other classes, when in reality, they were actually very well-behaved. In that situation, I had to recognize and challenge the implicit gender bias that I held, and ask myself how that could impact my students.”
As part of her research, Emenaha studies how these implicit biases combined with traditional teaching practices and curriculum can create a disconnect among students. With secondary education often lacking stories about diverse cultures, religions, genders or ethnicities, CRP focuses on the many positive effects of incorporating a more varied curriculum into everyday instruction.
"A lot of the curriculum taught in schools has a Eurocentric focus, but it's important to include more diverse stories, as they are just as ample and significant," Emenaha explained. "If students rarely see images that they relate to while learning, they can feel like they don't belong in the classroom. Using CRP as a guiding framework can help instructors improve student learning and achievement by bridging the cultural gap that often exists in traditional classroom environments."
Connecting to students and creating a more collaborative learning environment is a core component of Emenaha’s work with CRP. In her undergraduate courses, she teaches pre-service K-12 instructors how to weave topics such as pop culture and music into their lesson plans so they can relate to students on their level. These teaching methods can keep class more interesting and encourage students to want to learn. During a high school genetics class, for example, Emenaha would use celebrity families that are popular among her students to demonstrate patterns of inheritance and how physical traits are passed down from parents to their children.
“I like to create stories that get them engaged in class,” Emenaha said. “I look at what is important to them, or what topics they’re interested in outside of school and incorporate that into the lesson to increase engagement with the content we’re learning that day.”
Emenaha spent eight years teaching middle and high school science in Houston before transitioning to higher education. After receiving her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston in 2020, she brought her talents to UTSA. Since arriving in San Antonio, her primary focus has been helping STEM teachers-in-training develop culturally responsive education practices before they ever enter the classroom.
Emenaha’s work preparing pre-service teachers for success in culturally diverse settings fits perfectly within the college’s overall mission as well. As the largest division in the College of Education and Human Development, the Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching aims to prepare its students to become effective educators and community leaders by highlighting the importance of inclusivity, equity and collaboration in education.
Surprisingly, Emenaha didn’t always see herself as an educator. After she earned dual degrees in biology and communications at Houston Baptist University, she was interested in entering the healthcare field or working at a medical school. However, she felt that teaching was a great fit after her first few years in the K-12 space.
“Getting into education was supposed to be temporary, but as I spent more time in the field, I realized that teaching really played to my strengths,” Emenaha said. “I’ve always enjoyed science, and I like having an opportunity to share that with my students.”
During her first two years at UTSA, Emenaha has hit the ground running. While working as an assistant professor, she has researched and written about CRP and social issues in STEM education, presented at state and national conferences for science teachers, and served on multiple committees within her college. In recognition of her contributions both in and out of the classroom, Emenaha was presented with the Gerald Skoog Cup College Faculty Award by the Science Teachers Association of Texas in 2021. The award is given to faculty who demonstrate outstanding leadership and help advance the development of high-quality science education.
“It was an honor to be nominated,” Emenaha said. “I think that is definitely one of the biggest highlights of my career to date…kind of like a special gift to say that I’m on the right track.”
Emenaha plans to build on this momentum by continuing her CRP research and helping aspiring educators develop reflective teaching practices that promote equity and representation in science education.
Emenaha teaches the following courses:
- CI 5003: Theory of Curriculum & Instruction
- CI 6513: Grant Writing
- IDS 3003: STEM in Social Contexts
- UTE 3023: Perspectives on Science & Math
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