Former TAME Student Becomes International Champion of STEM Education

TAME Alumna Katrieva Jones-Monroe at her 2010 Educators With A Purpose STEM Day Camp, Credit to Tim Fischer of Midland Reporter Telegram
Katrieva Jones Monroe, standing center, goes over the lesson on designing a computer flight simulator at her 2010 Educators with a Purpose day camp. Photo by Tim Fischer/Midland Reporter-Telegram.

TAME Alumna:

"TAME really built me. They gave me a solid foundation. For the first time in my life, I saw where I could fit in. I didn’t have to be an athlete participating in athletic competitions. I could be an academic competitor."

Katrieva Jones-Munroe is the Department Chair of Computer Science at Odessa College, a Fulbright Scholar, and a member of the United Nations Youth - Science & Technology Delegation in Libya. She is also a former TAME Club member.

How did you get involved with TAME?

When I was growing up, I didn’t know where I fit in. It seemed as though everyone in my community in Midland was an athlete. I thought that’s what I had to be. I tried out for cheerleading, baseball and basketball and never made the team because I was horrible.

When I was a sophomore in high school, a group of minority engineers came to our school and told us about TAME. At the time, the phrase "minorities in engineering" meant nothing to us. This was the early 90’s, before cell phones, and technology to us was a foreign concept. The TAME engineers invited us to an open house where they explained the purpose of TAME, which was to expose us to the various areas of engineering, create outreach opportunities that would showcase the advantages of achieving a college degree, and offer academic competitions that would allow us to earn scholarships.

How did participating in TAME shape your career?

TAME really built me. They gave me a solid foundation and an understanding of a STEM area, engineering. For the first time in my life, I saw where I could fit in. I didn’t have to be an athlete. I could excel in academics. That was how I got started!

In TAME, we did all kinds of things. We went on a tour of UT El Paso and this was the first time most of us ever toured a college campus, stayed in college dorms and talked to college professors. At the end of the year, TAME scheduled a bridge-building competition that required participants to build an aerodynamic bridge. My best friend and I participated in the bridge building competition. This is when I realized that there were competitions outside of sports that I could possibly excel in. I did not win the contest (my best friend did!), but I experienced the art of losing gracefully, which was a concept that I had not mastered in sports.

Before TAME, I thought all competitions were athletic. TAME showed me other ways to compete academically. Through TAME, I found my academic niche. I competed in lots of academic competitions and I never won, but TAME taught me how to be a cheerful loser, a skill you need in order to become an appreciative winner. Before TAME, I cried for days when I lost sport competitions, because I knew I could not do any better. After TAME, I used each loss as a learning experience and grew from it. In other words, I became a better me.

Sometimes I’ll hear my students tear themselves down because they are taking transitional mathematics in college. They face me and say, I cannot major in computer science because I cannot do the math. I tell them, use the transitional math class as your foundation. Learn from it, remember it and grow from it. This is just another building block. You’re "IN the class," you’re "not THE class." They feel that they are never going to be any better than the class they are taking, but that is not the case. Life gets better and better and so will they. That’s what TAME taught me, that losing is temporary. As my dad would say every time I lost a competition, "You lost, but you’re not a loser." Once you find your niche you can only do better.

How did you decide where to go to college?

I didn’t know about many colleges besides Texas Tech... Through TAME, I connected with a mentor, Mr. Larry Goodwin, now a retired engineer. He and his wife, Janet Goodwin, were TAME volunteers, and Mrs. Goodwin taught at my high school. Mr. Goodwin taught me about different colleges and how to fill out a college application. I was accepted and went to Dillard University in New Orleans.

I went to Dillard for computer science. When I fell ill, I had to come back to Midland, and I went to UT Permian Basin. They had a computer programming competition there and at the advisement of my professor, Cherry Owen, I became a part of UTPB’s computer programming team. We competed against Rice two years in a row and lost every time, because we competing with the best of the best. After seeing how supportive and smart Cherry Owen was, I knew that one day I too would be a professor of computer science.

After college, I kept in touch with my TAME mentor. He asked if I was thinking about graduate school, and I said, no, one of my college advisors told me I wasn’t graduate school material. Mr. Goodwin and my mom and dad said, apply anyway. I got in, and went to graduate school for computer science at Prairie View A&M and University of Houston - Clear Lake.

And then you went to Russia?!

After graduate school, I applied to become a Fulbright Scholar. In fact, I applied a few times, but finally, I won! I had lost and lost at all those competitions my whole life, but when I finally won, it was a big one.

I was invited to be a professor at Bashkir State University in Ufa, Russia. I taught computer science and game animation. It was an out-of-body experience, and I learned so much about myself. The university had been there for 35 years and I was the first African-American professor there and the first group of community college Fulbright Scholars. This was a place with very few people of color and a big neo-Nazi population, where race relations felt like the 1950s. I became a better person because of it, both personally and professionally. I learned how to leverage between race relations and professionalism. I turned lemons into lemonade, publishing articles, going to conferences, learning how to cook from scratch. My son was five at the time and going to kindergarten, and we both learned to speak Russian. Upon completing my tenure at Bashkir State University, I became a part of the United Nations Youth - Science & Technology Delegation in Libya in 2010 and in 2015 a Cuba Education Delegation participant.

Why did you start a STEM summer camp?

I always wanted to have a free summer camp for kids. I wanted every child to have an opportunity to attend a summer camp with or without funds. When I got back to the States in 2008, I was inspired by my TAME experience. This was in Houston, where I was living at the time. I got sponsors for the building and for food and materials. That first time we had about ten students – I’m not a marketer! – but the students and their parents really enjoyed it.

In 2010 I decided to go back to Midland and to TAME, the community that built me. I worked with a colleague at Lone Star College, where I was teaching, to develop the curriculum for that year's summer camp. We built it around the concept of solar energy, using free software from Carnegie Mellon through the NSF. Atmos Energy was a big sponsor.

We asked the students, how much solar energy would you need to power a city and how would you make that determination? First, we taught the students how to use math—quadratic equations—to steer the computer animation where they created the illusion of solar energy in 3D objects. Finally, we built a model of a small city that was a tangible replica of that computer program, showing people, buildings, even a car that moved.

When you teach this way, you’re not just teaching equations. You’re turning equations into programming code, and when you do that, you can see the machinery move in real time. One young lady told me afterwards, "I hate math, but I really had fun putting math into this program."

We had mixed grade levels, 5th grade through 11th graders, all working together towards a common goal. I didn’t know how to do it, so I thought, I’ll just try this, and I hope it works. And it did!

Over the next few years, I implemented STEM programs in Houston for Lone Star College through a partnership with Cypress Independent School District, based on the success of the Midland STEM program.

This year I will host a STEM summer camp in Midland, TX June 1 – June 26, through my non-profit organization, People Builders Association. The summer camp will run from 8:00am – 5:00pm for students in 4th grade through 12th grade at 1001 S. Main Street. We are looking for organizations who are willing to sponsor the summer camp. Please contact us at 832.545.5965 for additional information.

When the newspaper came to interview me about the summer camp, I talked about TAME, because it’s still close to my heart and it was my inspiration. In January, I got to speak at the Divisional Math and Science Competition at Odessa College, and I told those kids, "twenty years ago I was in your seats, and in twenty from now, I challenge you to speak to a group of students about TAME and how it inspired you." 

What advice do you have for current TAME students?

Whatever you want to do, try it at least once. You can only find your niche through trial and error, and that’s the truth. Very few of us go through school knowing what we want to do.

What advice do you have for educators?

Don’t just tell kids, show them their possibilities.

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