Faces of Community-Engaged Scholarship: Brenda Aguirre-Ortega

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By Gretchen Minekime


What do a chemical engineer, a singer-songwriter, a translator and a math teacher have in common?  

Brenda Aguirre-Ortega, PhD student in the School of Education (STEM) and Engaged Arts and Humanities Scholar 

Aguirre-Ortega uses her impressive combination of interests and experiences to co-construct and co-facilitate a music production workshop for 4th and 5th graders to learn about music composition and math—one subject through the other.  

She is February’s Face of Community-Engaged Scholarship. 

How did community-engaged scholarship become part of your academic path?  

When I started my PhD, I had the thought that I wanted to study and become an expert in math education to make a meaningful contribution to my community. My advisor sent me the Engaged Arts and Humanities Graduate Student Scholars (EAH) application, and it resonated with me. At first, I only knew that I wanted to create a project in a school and that it would have something to do with music production. The idea became more tangible when I started sharing it with the EAH cohort. We were all beginning projects, and we helped each other develop ideas. At the same time, I was learning in my classes about the role of culture as a mediator of educational practices that are sensitive to inclusion and diversity. I decided to incorporate music, math, Spanish, and cultural practices into my project, and then I got connected to Boulder Valley School District’s Columbine Elementary School.  

What plan developed from the ideating?  

When I reached out to the principal and vice principal of Columbine with my idea of a music production workshop for Latinx students, they asked me to offer it in Spanish. They emphasized  the importance of providing an after-school program in Spanish. They connected me with the school’s Family Outreach Coordinator, and she identified 10 4th and 5th graders interested in music and songwriting. At CU Boulder, we made a team with two undergraduates and one graduate student  with whom we developed the curriculum and had sessions to plan lessons.   

In the fall of 2022, we started the after-school program and  met once per week for eight weeks. We learned to use Soundtrap, a recording app from Google. We also learned about music production, lyric writing, MIDI keyboards, improvisation, sampling, artwork to represent the songs, and more. Most students wrote one song and some multiple songs. Everything culminated in a final presentation of their work and our group song. Parents and siblings came, and the children had the opportunity to share their music production journey, sources of inspiration and overall process.  

That first iteration of the workshop didn’t have a lot of direct connections to math. The second iteration (taking place April-May 2023) will have more, and by the third iteration, I intend to have explicit math problems incorporated using Soundtrap. 

For the second iteration, there are five undergrads learning to use Soundtrap and co-planning lessons. am. Two are education majors; one is a music education major, another is an international business major, and the fifth has a minor in Spanish and a major in physiology. All identify as Latinx and are heritage Spanish speakers. During our first meeting, they shared their goals of connecting with children through music. I believe it is important to share spaces with people that make us feel represented, and I think that the elementary students see themselves reflected in the undergraduate facilitators. .  

What influence has the work had on you professionally and personally? 

The project is helping me develop new identities (e.g., leader, community-engaged practitioner), and I am building my confidence and skills. 

I want to be a teacher educator.  Having the opportunity to work closely with the undergraduate instructors—developing learning spaces for them and then moving our work together to a different learning space for the elementary students—is allowing me to develop tools.  

One of my biggest goals to emerge is that I want to do research within the workshop and with the participating undergraduates. We all meet regularly to prepare and rehearse for the elementary school sessions. So, research potentially about the collaborative process of building curriculum that draws on cultural practices and the facilitation of spaces that are culturally sustaining.  I would like to do research that is participatory, ethical and inclusive.  This project has given me a start learning how to do those things.  

This is the first time I’ve led a music project with children. During the fall series, I felt like I was learning new ways of structuring a space where students have guidelines but also the freedom to explore and have agency over their learning. Learning from children in such a space has been rewarding. The things they say, their wise words, the way they are—I’m just so grateful to see them express themselves.  

On a personal level, I find the school  beautiful. There’s kids’ work on the walls, a big playground and a soccer field. The front desk people and the teachers are all bilingual, and they speak with us in Spanish. I identify as Latina, which is not an identification I need in my native Ecuador, but here I need it. Although the words Latina and Latinx are used to include people from or with roots in Latin America, I am aware that my experience in the U.S. is different from the experiences of the undergraduate students and the elementary students, as they have a transnational identity that I don’t. 

What’s been your biggest lesson?  

It is possible to work collectively towards a goal and to co-create and co-facilitate. I don’t need to do it all. Just how powerful groups of people working together can be. I wasn’t used to group work. It can be messy, but it’s OK.  

Applications are being accepted through March 8 for the 2023-24 Engaged Arts and Humanities Graduate Student Scholars. Learn more.