Judas Priest blasting through her earbuds, Valerie Otero rocks to the beat of heavy metal music while she runs on the treadmill at the gym, a bandana wrapped low around her forehead Axl Rose style. Her signature long braid swings behind her.
“Heavy metal music is a carnal cry for authenticity, fairness and justice,” said Otero, professor of science education at CU-Boulder and a self-described metal head. “The lyrics are beautiful, but sometimes uncomfortable. I like anything shocking or uncomfortable; discomfort is where you find your authentic self.”
As a physics education researcher, Otero mentors university faculty and community K-12 teachers who teach in a variety of science disciplines to help them build learning environments that are empowering for students. She is driven to continue to improve the way science is taught, at all levels, and believes in progressive learning environments that enable students to use and develop the critical and creative intelligence they already have.
“That moment when students start to feel good about themselves is when they start learning,” she said. “Every student has a right to a decent science education. Knowing that so many smart kids are left out of science or grow to despise science breaks my heart. I won’t tolerate it and that’s why I do what I do.”
As a Chicana growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Otero was the first in her family to go to college.
Starting at age 12, Otero worked in her family’s grocery store. By that time, Otero was beginning to notice certain injustices in school and many missed opportunities to connect students’ hearts and minds to learning. In high school, Otero used to tell her friends, “I’m gonna be the leader of the revolution in education someday,” although she didn’t know how that would happen.
An opportunity to attend the University of New Mexico on a four-year NASA Scholarship for Minority Women was both her ticket to a college education and an escape from an abusive boyfriend. In college, she discovered a passion for physics while taking an astronomy class in her junior year.
“I found physics to be like math with glitter on top,” said Otero. “It opened up a whole new world of questions that I had never thought to ask.”
A defining experience for Otero was being accepted to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Planetary Science at the University of California, San Diego, for a summer undergraduate research program. After earning an undergraduate degree in physics, Otero went on to receive a master’s in geophysics and a doctorate in mathematics and science education from UC San Diego.
Before she left for San Diego, her friend, Turtle, gave her two pieces of advice that she has held onto—to never forget where she came from and to go fishing on a deep-sea fishing boat. Following his advice has led to an unbridled zeal for both big-game fishing and teaching.
When Otero caught her first Jackpot fish that summer she was hooked. Every year she takes a chartered long-range fishing trip to fish for tuna, yellowtail and wahoo. Reeling in a 200-pound tuna requires strength, stamina and skill, all traits she has honed over the years.
“Anything that becomes repetitive is boring to me,” she said. “Fishing will never be boring, otherwise it would be called catching.”
During her academic career at CU-Boulder, Otero has helped develop a nationally recognized presence for the university in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education research and STEM teacher preparation. She has written two physics curricula and is at work on a third.
One career accomplishment Otero is proud of is the Colorado Learning Assistant model she co-founded with astrophysicist Dick McCray over a decade ago. It is now emulated by more than 60 universities throughout the world. Her work with K-12 science teachers is also among her greatest accomplishments. “We are all working so hard to make sure our students find love for themselves through science," she said.
“I know firsthand what many students who are underrepresented in math and science are going through,” said Otero. “I’ve made it my business to change the way students experience science. My goal in life to create learning environments where students can feel good about themselves as they create explanations about the world around them.”
Otero is convinced that students just want to be challenged, contribute and find their voice.
“As teachers and professors, we have to learn how to use science to help students find their voice and use their good sense to take action, that’s what science is all about,” she said. “If I had to describe myself, I’d say I’m a badass. A badass is someone who’s not afraid to take risks and isn’t afraid to do what they know is right.”