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NMSU SOAR Center provides valuable student research experience, community outreach

  • By Adriana M. Chávez
  • 575-646-1957
  • Oct 04, 2021
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Five years ago, the Southwest Outreach Academic Research (SOAR) Evaluation & Policy Center at New Mexico State University began as a way for students, both graduate and undergraduate, to get hands-on experience with both qualitative and quantitative research.

Since then, the lab has evolved into assisting not just outreach programs offered by NMSU, but also partnering with groups outside of the university that are in need of research and evaluation services.

The SOAR Center, formerly known as the STEM Outreach Alliance Research Lab, is housed in the NMSU College of Health, Education and Social Transformation. It is perhaps best known as the group responsible for the annual New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report, but the center, which consists of Director Rachel Boren, Senior Program Specialist Germain Degardin and four graduate students, also handles between 15 and 20 projects at any given time. Projects range from education-related to project focusing on mental and behavioral health, and workforce development.

“We’ve definitely expanded the number of departments across campus in terms of partnerships, and we also now work with a lot of external groups that are all over New Mexico,” Boren said. “This for us is exciting, because we’ve also become a university-recognized service center with a more streamlined operation, which shows that we offer a valuable service for the university as well as externally.”

This year’s educator vacancy report is expected to be released in early October.

The lab was founded by Karen Trujillo in 2016 as an NMSU faculty member as a way to give undergraduate students valuable experience in quantitative and qualitative research methods, while providing valuable community outreach. Trujillo, who eventually became superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools, passed away earlier this year.

Students involved with the SOAR Center work with other program directors across NMSU, as well as community programs and agencies, to gather data on their initiatives, analyze the data, and present their findings in order to help directors improve their programs.

During the lab’s first year, Trujillo and her students began gathering data on teacher vacancies statewide as part of a now annual report offering a portrait of what subjects and locations in the state are in most need of teachers. The report has proven to be a valuable tool to measure what resources are needed to fill those gaps.

Degardin was one of those first students involved in the center, and has now been with the center throughout its existence.

“I was there right at the root of the SOAR Lab,” Degardin said. “It’s been great. I’ve learned a lot. Personally, at first it provided what I needed at the time, which was a graduate assistant position, but as it grew, I got a lot of experience out of it. It’s been a very good experience.”

Degardin said when he initially became involved with the lab, he hadn’t been exposed to quantitative research.

“I know what when Karen created the lab in the first place, this is what she wanted – students exposed to both research methods,” Degardin said. “I think that I got a great deal of exposure to hands-on and meaningful research experience through my graduate assistantship.”

Looking ahead, Boren said she envisions the lab continuing to grow and keep its staff busy providing valuable resources to both the NMSU and external communities.

“I think we have a lot of great people we’re working with now, and I’m focused on keeping those relationships going and helping our partners as their projects evolve,” Boren said. “We’re always looking to collaborate with different groups, faculty and staff, and that’s the best part of the job. You get to work with every one and constantly meet new people.”