Originally published September 12, 2016
By Christina Rodriguez
Ask seven of The University of Texas at El Paso’s award-winning professors, scholars and researchers what has been most valuable to them during their years in academia, and they will tell you it has been what they have learned from their students. The shared process of teaching and learning has been what inspires them to keep growing and striving to be their very best.
Being their best is exactly what caught the attention of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, who recognized them with the 2016 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award for setting a high standard of teaching for others to aspire to achieve.
The UTEP honorees are: Joyce Asing Cashman, Ph.D., assistant professor of practice for STEM education; José de Piérola, Ph.D., associate professor of creative writing; Jorge Lopez, Ph.D., Rho Sigma Tau-Robert L. Schumaker Professor of Physics; Maria Cristina Morales, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and anthropology; Aurelia Murga, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology and anthropology; Germán Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences; and W. Shane Walker, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil engineering.
Established in 2008, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards (ROTA) program recognizes educators for their outstanding classroom performance and innovation in undergraduate instruction.
“I’m delighted that the UT System Board of Regents has once again honored several UTEP faculty members for their excellent teaching,” said Howard C. Daudistel, Ph.D., interim provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The Regents’ recognition validates our faculty’s hard work and dedication to student learning and achievement.”
Faculty members undergo a series of rigorous evaluations by students, peer faculty members and external reviewers. The review panels consider a range of activities and other criteria in their evaluations, including outstanding teaching, mentoring, personal commitment to students and motivating students in the classroom.
“Our award-winning faculty not only excel in the classroom, they are outstanding scholars, researchers and writers,” Daudistel added. “I congratulate each one of them for their success and thank them for their commitment to maintaining UTEP’s stature as a leader in higher education.”
This year’s recipients bring the number of UTEP faculty who have received this prestigious award to 65. The award program is one of the nation’s largest monetary teaching recognition programs in higher education. Each honoree received $25,000 and was recognized at a ceremony held Aug. 24, 2016 in Austin, Texas.
“UT educators provide invaluable mentorship and deliver high-quality instruction and innovation while enhancing the minds of the nation’s next leaders,” UT System Board of Regents Chairman Paul L. Foster said. “Their deep commitment to outstanding education ensures student success across the System. The Board of Regents is honored to recognize our dedicated faculty members through the ROTA program.”
Joyce Asing Cashman, Ph.D., earned her Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from University Putra Malaysia in her home country of Malaysia, her master’s in computer application from Middlesex University in London, and her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from New Mexico State University.
She began her career working with software and information systems for both the private and public sectors in Malaysia. Teaching was something she wanted to do since she was a child, but she really became passionate about pursuing a teaching career while working as a teaching assistant at NMSU. In 2008, Asing Cashman joined UTEP, where she works to prepare aspiring teachers to teach STEM education. She promotes active learning in her classes, where she serves as the facilitator and allows her students to gain hands-on teaching experience. She also likes to utilize techniques such as drawing and having her students present topics they are learning about to the tune of their favorite songs.
Asing Cashman said she learns a lot from her students.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s on a subject matter or just life in general,” she said. “When my students succeed, I feel proud and at the same time humbled. My students have taught me about perseverance, focus and tenacity. They make me want to learn more and keep getting better for them.”
Asing Cashman plays a significant role in preparing her students to be successful in their own careers as teachers.
“Under Dr. Asing Cashman’s constant care and support, the University students are prepared and ready to become highly qualified teachers in our district,” said Susana Gonzalez, principal at Loma Terrace Elementary in the Ysleta Independent School District. “Her calm and patient personality helps to make her a person who leads from the heart.”
José de Piérola, Ph.D., received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering while in Peru. After working for 10 years as a computer consultant, he decided to pursue his aspiration of becoming a writer. It was while de Piérola was furthering his education – he earned a master’s in Latin American literature and a doctorate in literature from the University of California, San Diego – that he became more and more passionate about reading, writing and teaching. He came to UTEP in 2007. He is the director of graduate studies and associate professor in the Department of Creative Writing.
The shared process of teaching and learning is what keeps de Piérola excited about teaching.
“When you are teaching students, there is a gap between what they know at that point in time and what they should know,” he said. “Trying to fill that gap is very exciting for me. As a teacher, there is also a small gap between what you know and what you need to keep learning. You discover through exploration that you never will know enough and can always find new and exciting ways to teach students.”
De Piérola’s method of teaching leaves a lasting impression on his students and helps them to excel not only in their careers, but in their personal lives as well.
“Dr. José de Piérola has enriched greatly my professional, academic, creative and personal development,” said Justin David Stone, a third-year Master of Fine Arts student with UTEP’s Bilingual Creative Writing program. “Never have I had a more effective or more enlightening professor and mentor.”
Jorge Lopez, Ph.D., is a UTEP alumnus who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from UTEP and his doctorate from Texas A&M University. It was an extraordinary teacher he had in middle school who helped him discover a love for physics and a desire to become a scientist. His quest to become a scientist led him to academia and exposed him to research. He joined UTEP in 1990 and is the Rho Sigma Tau – Robert L. Schumaker Professor of Physics. Lopez has received a number of awards and recognitions throughout his career, but it is the love of science and teaching that keeps him motivated to go further.
“When you are passionate about something, you want everyone to know about it,” he said. “As a student I got excited about science through the support I received from my teachers. I got the same feeling of excitement I felt as a student while teaching others. The relationship between students and teachers is a crucial one, and because of this I am always trying to discover new ways of teaching and refreshing my own knowledge to be prepared for my students. I want my students to feel the amazement of science in both upper- and lower-level courses.”
Lopez not only teaches his students but takes a vested interest in their lives and helps them to reach their fullest potential.
“Dr. Lopez has been influential in my academic growth as well as my individual development,” said Arlene Smith, a former student in Lopez’s physics course on fields and waves. “The effort that he invests in each student allows us to realize our potential to achieve. His caring allowed me to value the importance of looking out for the betterment of mankind. I can truly say that I have overcome challenges … because of his influence.”
Maria Cristina Morales, Ph.D., is a UTEP alumna who earned her bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology from UTEP in 1996 then went on to Texas A&M University to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology. She returned to UTEP in 2006 and is now an associate professor for the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Morales takes an interactive approach to teaching and uses a variety of innovative approaches to engage her students. She focuses on mentoring, empowering and providing students with marketable skills. She credits her life experiences for shaping her overall pedagogical approach, which she calls “empowerment through student engagement.”
“My students really inspire and drive me every day to be at my best and work hard to give them the time, effort and energy they deserve,” Morales said. “Seeing my students take what they learn in class and turn around and teach their family and friends and become the educators is inspiring. I learn a lot from my students when I see how strong they are and how they surpass so many obstacles and challenges and in turn empower others.”
Morales’ role as a mentor along with her innovative approach to teaching make her a favorite among her students.
“An outstanding professor is one who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework, encourages you to challenge ideas and enables you to think critically, all while having fun,” said one of Morales’ former students, Denise Delgado. “Dr. Morales embodies the qualities of an outstanding professor with her creativity in projects, ways to review for exams, lectures, and in-class activities. It is truly an honor to call her my mentor.”
Aurelia Murga, Ph.D., earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from Texas A&M International University and her doctorate in sociology from Texas A&M University. She was excited to join UTEP in 2010 as a visiting professor because she could relate to many of her students’ backgrounds and experiences. She currently is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology. Murga’s approach to teaching is to urge her students to connect their own life experiences and those of their classmates with a variety of social issues by encouraging them to see themselves as knowledge producers.
“A lot of my students face tremendous difficulties but never give up their sense of purpose, and their drive to succeed has been very motivating to me,” Murga said. “Teaching is not all about what I know and can share with my students but what I can learn from them as well. We are in it together. Teaching and learning is an ongoing process and I will never stop learning how to be a better teacher.”
Murga takes the time to get to know her students and help them work through any challenges they may face while pursuing their educational or career goals.
“With Dr. Murga’s direct mentorship, I went from an insecure undergraduate lacking direction to a developing scholar on the path to a teaching career,” said José Castaneda, one of Murga’s former students who is now a graduate student at Cornell University. “Many of my accomplishments are a testament to the profound impact that educators can have on a student’s future.”
Germán Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, D.C., Colombia, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical science from New York University. After completing two postdoctoral fellowships at Texas A&M University, he joined UTEP in 2007, where he is an associate professor of biological sciences and teaches molecular cell biology.
Rosas-Acosta is crazy about two things in life, his research and teaching. The two work hand-in-hand: what he learns from his students helps him to continually implement new methods to improve his teaching and also drives him to work harder on his research. His philosophy for teaching is that fun motivates both teaching and learning.
“To be a good teacher you have to motivate your students, and if you motivate them in the right way, they will have the initiative to go further and more in depth in a subject,” Rosas-Acosta said. “You have to motivate their curiosity and give them a reason for why the questions that are being asked are meaningful. To truly learn, a subject has to be meaningful for them.”
Rosas-Acosta’s ability to motivate his students has enabled him to play an integral role in their success.
“Dr. Rosas-Acosta truly exemplifies the idea that one person – a good mentor – can completely change the direction of the life of a person,” said Daniel H. Ramirez, first-year Harvard University doctoral candidate and one of Rosas-Acosta’s mentees while attending UTEP. “My story illustrates just one of many that he has helped shape. Without his support and mentorship, I truly would not be where I am today.”
Shane Walker, Ph.D., received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Texas Tech University, and his M.S. and doctoral degrees in environmental and water resources engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. Walker came to UTEP in 2010, where he is an assistant professor for the Department of Civil Engineering. His teaching and research focuses on sustainable water treatment systems. His ultimate goal through teaching, research and engineering practice is to inspire others to improve sustainable water treatment technologies in order to provide safe drinking water and sanitation to every person in the world.
“As a professor, I want not only to teach engineering principles creatively and effectively, but also to inspire my students to apply their knowledge, skills and innovation toward more elegant and sustainable solutions,” Walker said. “Several of the students whom I have mentored are employed by international environmental engineering consulting firms, several have started their own consulting firms, several work for state or federal environmental engineering agencies, and several are pursuing doctoral studies at preeminent universities around the world. I am making the world a better place through my teaching: vicariously through my students.”
Walker’s passion for teaching and providing the world with clean drinking water is contagious among his students, who, following his example and leadership, want to do all that they can to contribute to the cause.
“It is because of Dr. Walker’s skill as an educator and a mentor that I have decided to pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering and continue to perform research under his direction after graduation,” said current UTEP engineering undergraduate Troy Svede. “Many of my peers in the laboratory pursuing graduate degrees also cite Dr. Walker as a big factor in their decisions to pursue an advanced degree at UTEP.”