Tuesday, May 19, 2020
  Community, Around Campus

By Amanda Alaniz

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – “I think you misplaced my child’s homework.”

The frustrated parent crosses his arms and waits for the teacher’s response.

“Um – pause simulation,” the teacher says.

The teacher is a UTRGV education student participating in a mixed-reality simulation session.

The parent is an avatar controlled by an actor in real time.

Both are part of the Student Teacher Education Preparation University Partnership (STEP UP) program.

Typically, under the STEP UP program, teacher candidates are assigned to work with a specific teacher at a partnering school district for the full school year, to learn about the school’s culture and help in the classroom.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though, and the need for distance learning, STEP UP leaders made adjustments for students, who already had started their student teaching but had to cut it short.

Dr. Steve Chamberlain, STEP UP coordinator and professor in the UTRGV Department of Human Development and School Services, said students were provided with educational modules to be completed online, and attended mixed reality simulation (MRS) sessions for the remainder of the semester.

The College of Education and P-16 Integration’s Mixed-Reality Simulation (MRS) software was utilized to create “real-life” scenarios that dabbled in parent conferencing and mock interviews. During sessions, each student interacted with a parent avatar and a potential employer avatar, receiving real-time responses from the actor.

“We worked with them to develop the scenarios and how they would respond to students,” Chamberlain said. “The really cool thing about mixed-reality is, you’re in a group and you have a support group.

“We provide a lot of feedback after they’ve finished the session. We have discussions about best practices. If they get stuck, they can pause the simulation,” he said, “They can turn to their classmates and instructors and they have an opportunity to seek advice before they return to the session.”

Open, honest conversations happen between the students, as these are candidates who have been together for a while and trust each other. 

Some of the candidates did get the opportunity to interact with actual parents during their student teaching, but usually, their teacher would step in if the interaction intensified. In the MRS, though, students are in full control of the situation, learning how to deescalate a tense conversation and getting tips about the best practices for certain situations. 

Graduating STEP UP program students Yanneli Bustos and Theresa Garza participated in the MRS sessions and found them to be beneficial.

Bustos, an Interdisciplinary Studies EC-6th major and San Juan native, said she was completing her student teaching at Hendricks Elementary, in the McAllen school district. She said she is thankful for the guidance and support from her cooperating teacher and for building a solid foundation for her career in education.

The MRS sessions, the mock interview and parent-teacher conference provided her with constructive feedback in a low-stress environment and highlighted what she could improve on.

During her parent-teacher conference, she said, she learned important skills about how to build a connection with a parent and find solutions.

“It was eye-opening, because when I get nervous, I laugh. So, when I was doing the mixed-reality session, I laughed and the parent confronted me,” Bustos said. “And I thought, ‘That’s something I need to work on.’ It was a great experience.”

The mock interview came in handy, too, she said, as it was before the virtual career expo she had attended.

McAllen native Garza, an Interdisciplinary Studies major with a concentration in special education, also was completing her student teaching at Hendricks Elementary.

She picked up skills and confidence for interacting with students, she said, and was grateful for her experience at the elementary school.

Garza already was familiar with the interview process, but the parent-teacher conference was a new experience. She found the MRS sessions gave her a better idea of how to deal with certain situations.

“The MRS really prepares you for everything,” she said. “I was able to take away a lot of tips because we did have the field supervisors there. They were able to give us advice, such as when you have a confrontational parent, what to do, like reminding parents of your classroom routines.”

Overall, both students said, they found the MRS sessions provided valuable insight into what a career in education will hold. 

To learn more about the STEP UP program, visit College of Education and P-16 Integration or email Dr. Steve Chamberlain at steve.chamberlain@utrgv.edu.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.