Notes from UTeach Nation: Amber Rodriguez Squashes the Competition

Notes from UTeach Nation: Amber Rodriguez Squashes the Competition


Amber Rodriguez had never grown a pumpkin before, but that didn’t stop the Environmental Systems teacher at Homer Hanna Early College High School in Brownsville, Texas, from trying when Brownsville ISD hosted its first-ever Great Pumpkin growing contest. As part of their quest for botanical success, students learned how to till soil, plant seeds, mix compost, transplant seedlings, water just enough, and build enclosures. They hand-pollinated the flowers and engaged in pest management, as well as battling powdery mildew and the blistering Texas sun.

Despite the challenges posed by the South Texas heat, the team’s pumpkin grew to a whopping 275 pounds, winning the Homer Hanna team the Brownsville school district’s Great Pumpkin competition this November.

In addition to leading her Environmental Systems students to horticultural victory, in the two years since she graduated from UT-Brownsville (now UT-Rio Grande Valley) with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Rodriguez has become co-sponsor of her school’s National Honor Society chapter, has been appointed the Environmental Systems strand leader, and has returned to UTeach RGV to serve as a mentor teacher for Classroom Interactions students. “I love being able to take what I learned from my experience with the program and first two years teaching, and sharing it with students currently going through the program,” she says.

When asked why she chose to not only stay in the Valley, but to take a job teaching at the high school where she matriculated, Rodriguez’s reply is simple, yet eloquent: “I wanted to give back to my community and what better way than to teach at my alma mater?”

“Science education is especially important in our area because of high levels of poverty. There is a growing number of career opportunities in STEM fields, which offer greater economic success and advancement. A sound foundation in STEM can be life changing for many in our community.”

Indeed, according to the Texas Tribune, Cameron County, where Brownsville is located, is among the poorest counties in Texas and has the highest child poverty rate in the state. With well-prepared teachers and solid financial support, robust STEM education can help create opportunities for underprivileged students in impoverished areas in Texas and beyond.

We live in an increasingly globalized world, in which today’s children will be working in jobs and professions that haven’t even been created yet. The need for dedicated STEM teachers is more critical than ever, especially in areas with high poverty rates and among populations historically underrepresented in STEM fields.

That’s what makes Rodriguez such an important member of UTeach Nation, especially since teaching wasn’t necessarily Rodriguez’s first career choice. The daughter of two teachers, she knew the daily hard work of a teacher’s lifestyle. “I grew up watching my parents prepare lesson plans, lectures, and presentations to use in their classrooms. I sat at the kitchen table while my mother graded numerous papers. I spent weekends, holidays and winter/summer breaks with both of my parents around. I saw both the positive and negative aspects of teaching.”

Encouraged by her mother to explore the UTeach Brownsville program as it was getting off the ground, Rodriguez signed up with teaching as a possible back-up plan for her career. But, she says, “After completing my first couple of UTeach courses, I realized that I really liked the idea of becoming a science teacher.”

Rodriguez credits UTeach with her change of heart. The program gave her the opportunity to interact with students in elementary, middle, and high schools grade level through classroom observations and hands-on experience teaching, as well as to collaborate with mentor teachers and professors who shared their expertise with her.

“Much of what I learned throughout my time with the UTeach program helped me feel better prepared when I started my first year as a high school science teacher."


Good preparation also includes adjusting your methods when your results don’t meet your expectations, as was the case with the Great Pumpkin competition. While officials were expecting the pumpkins to reach 500 and 600 pounds, the south Texas heat had other plans, causing many of them to implode just as they were reaching maturity.

“For this year’s competition, we plan on incorporating all the things we learned last year,” says Rodriguez. “We now have a clear understanding of how to grow and maintain pumpkins. We plan on taking the necessary precautions to try to avoid things like powdery mildew. We will be able to be more efficient with our time and materials.” 

“We will stick with what worked like watering schedules and canopy designs that will help our pumpkin grow to its optimal potential.” The project also found students growing radishes, carrots, corn, okra, and watermelon, which also equips them with the knowledge and skills to grow their own food—a nice bonus take-away from science class.

Sometimes a pumpkin is just a pumpkin (or a slice of pie). But in STEM education, a pumpkin is a way to introduce concepts like botany, ecology, composting, and using water resources wisely, in addition to observation, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and self-sufficiency. It’s hard to imagine a more convincing argument for the profound importance of STEM education and preparing more teachers like Amber Rodriguez.