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IN THE CLASSROOM

Professor Charts a New Course for L.A.'s Trade Tech

Miguel Moreno promotes math and science at a campus known for vocational programs. It's changing the face of the school.

June 02, 2004|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Miguel Moreno can't make it across the Trade Tech campus without bumping into the fruits of his relentless enthusiasm for math and science at the Los Angeles college better known for vocational programs like auto tech and fashion.

In a courtyard on a typically busy day recently, Moreno runs into a fellow faculty member and quickly discusses plans for a fundraiser, featuring Argentine guitarists, for his science students' programs.

Before boarding an elevator, he jovially chats about classwork with one of his students, a working nurse who is studying to become a doctor.

Outside his office, Moreno comes across two students who did so well in his science courses they now work at a tutoring center he helped establish. They're having timesheet issues.

"If there's a problem, we'll look into it -- and solve it," he says with a reassuring smile.

It's the kind of attitude that students and colleagues say makes Moreno a stimulating presence at Los Angeles Trade Technical, the downtown community college not traditionally recognized as a hub of innovative math and science instruction.

In the last few years, the astronomy and physics professor has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants for a variety of programs he has built or taken over.

Moreno, who has taught at Trade Tech more than 20 years, says his work is rooted in promoting math and science education among low-income and minority students, groups that form the bulk of Trade Tech's enrollment.

In the process, said college President Daniel Castro, Moreno is changing the face of the school.

"The programs he's doing are stuff we've never done on this campus, and he's making them work," Castro said. "He's here; he could be at another college, but he wants to have an impact on these kids."

A NASA grant funds a program that allows Moreno to teach advanced science to high school students in the area.

Another grant helped start a partnership with USC that lets Trade Tech students use the university's lecture halls and labs for Moreno's robotics technology, nuclear medicine and microchip manufacturing programs -- all of which he developed within the last five years.

In addition, he's applying for a grant to teach nanotechnology to Trade Tech students jointly with UCLA.

Moreno is also spearheading an effort to strengthen the college's premed, pre-dentistry and pre-pharmacy training courses. And he is developing a biotechnology associate's degree for Trade Tech that would be taught partly at USC, about a mile away.

Moreno said he had more than $4 million in grant proposals for more science programs pending approval from the U.S. departments of energy and homeland security, in addition to small fundraisers and grant requests he's floating at NASA.

"It takes some effort," Moreno, 55, said. "I don't have a grant writer."

Getting the word out in innovative ways is part of his plan too.

Once the money rolls in, Moreno and his assistant, former student Rebecca Bergman, draw up the brochures and fan out to community centers to recruit students. The Department of Energy approved about $30,000 for the rental of a blimp to promote Trade Tech programs. Moreno said he planned to fly the aircraft above the nearby Harbor Freeway -- it would be remotely operated by students, of course, for an instructional purpose.

"There are 500,000 people that go through there every day," he said.

Jane Cody, an associate dean of academic programs at USC's College of Arts and Sciences, said the partnership was mutually beneficial because Trade Tech students could begin imagining themselves at large universities, while USC could fulfill its community service pledge.

Moreno is "a curricular thinker, amazingly inventive in the very best sense of the word," Cody said. "We've started small, and it's gotten bigger every semester."

Moreno's scientific credentials include working on the Hubble space telescope while at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He did research at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico while a graduate student at UCLA, where he earned a doctorate in geophysics and space physics.

His theories on the possibility of microscopic life from Earth making it to Mars in the aftermath of a meteor crash were published as a letter to the editor in the journal Nature in 1988.

Moreno, a native of Argentina, is soft-spoken but rarely silent. Sifting through papers at his office, a stuffy cubicle crammed with teetering piles of books and papers, he pauses when asked what motivates him.

"We would like people to know Trade Tech is more than just a trade school," Moreno said, proudly noting that one of his former students went to Oxford University in Britain for an advanced degree in physics. "We try to build the bridge so the communities can see us as a pathway to great universities."

The most immediate way to do that, Moreno said, is to introduce high school and two-year students to four-year universities well before they are prepared to make that jump.

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