The New Mexico State Legislature is honoring a University of New Mexico faculty member for her dedication to education and student preparedness in the classroom. 


Vanessa Svihla is an associate professor at UNM with appointments in the Organization, Information & Learning Sciences (OILS) program and the Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering. State legislators are recognizing her for her initiative in developing frameworks that support faculty and help prepare students for real-life challenges in their future careers. She says the honor represents all that UNM faculty bring to New Mexico.

“Many of us do research that directly helps communities and schools,” said Svihla. “There are many wonderful projects at UNM that the public never finds out about unless they are participating in them.”

Svihla’s first National Science Foundation (NSF) grant at UNM funded research aimed at helping teachers create classroom activities out of the experiences they have in UNM’s research labs. The innovative approach fostered a more accessible learning environment in classrooms and gave thousands of New Mexico students a better understanding of careers in engineering and science. Svihla says such impactful research is happening across the state, and recognition by the legislature helps bring it to the forefront.

“UNM faculty do amazing work,” Svihla said. “I feel very proud to represent our faculty.”

Other examples of her work and research are prime examples of this. Svihla was the first faculty member from UNM selected to be a National Academy of Education / Spencer Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow. The experience gave her an opportunity to focus on research meant to develop new assessments of students’ progress in several local high schools that serve a vulnerable population – those who have dropped out, disengaged or who just don't fit well in traditional schools.

She also works closely with faculty at UNM Chemical & Biological Engineering to identify the assets brought to campus through its diverse population. 

“We are creating new activities for their classes that build on students' strengths,” Svihla said. “This is a major shift in how we think. Instead of focusing on gaps, starting from what students know and can do well has let us better support their learning.”

Her work was recognized by the American Society for Engineering Education in 2016 as the Best Diversity Paper in 2016 and by the 2018 Christine A. Stanley Award for Diversity and Inclusion Research in Educational Development. In 2018, Svihla was awarded the NSF CAREER Award for her research on how to support students to make decisions that matter.

Svihla received a master's degree in geology and Ph.D. in science education from UT Austin. She served in the Peace Corps and was a post-doctoral scholar at UC Berkeley.