Texas Border Business
By Victoria Brito Morales
RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas – Math can be fun.
Those two concepts – math, and fun – might seem like a dichotomy. But one professor at UTRGV has found their harmony, even during a pandemic and the teaching challenges it presented.
Dr. Josef Sifuentes, assistant professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences, College of Sciences, has been named a 2021 UT System Regents Outstanding Teacher Award winner for his innovation and commitment to elevating the learning experience through outstanding teaching and creativity.
Typically, the UT System Board of Regents awards 27 ROTA winners across the UT System, but this year only 14 were selected.
A 50-page application for consideration must be submitted. This year, the focus was on supporting student excellence during the digital age brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sifuentes, a Houston native, is a Rice University graduate who began work at UTRGV in 2015, the year it opened to students. His wife, Maribel, is a Valley native.
TEACHING THROUGH A PANDEMIC
Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic made history and essentially shut down the world, education still had to continue in the face of that uncertainty. To break the monotony, Sifuentes said, he had to get creative with his math classes.
One assignment had students look at a movie poster for the 2018 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie, The Skyscraper. In it, the wrestler-turned-actor is running toward an open window on a skyscraper, at an angle, from an even higher crane.
The assignment: Does The Rock survive?
“Things to consider are, how fast do you think he was running when he leaped?” Sifuentes said. “So, the students had to translate to meters per second, considering vertical acceleration after jumping is equal to gravity. His horizontal acceleration remains what it was at launch.”
Students had to show their work and explain, using math, why or why not The Rock survives.
One of the students in the class, Anita Ayala, a senior biology major from Edinburg, initially struggled with the assignment. But she said Sifuentes was there to assure her and guide her through the task.
“A good teacher is someone who makes an impact in someone’s life, no matter how big or small,” she said. “Dr. Sifuentes puts all his effort in making sure his students’ education, and their well-being, are more than satisfactory.”
Sifuentes currently teaches Real Analysis and Intro to Mathematics Software at UTRGV. He was nominated for the ROTA award by Dr. Timothy Huber, director and professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and himself a 2016 ROTA winner.
Huber was drawn to Sifuentes and his work during his first year at UTRGV, when Sifuentes was teaching a course in linear algebra. Huber was conducting a peer evaluation and was intrigued by the unique take on matrix exponentials Sifuentes was presenting to the students.
Sifuentes told students to imagine making a mathematical model of Romeo and Juliet’s love affair.
“Suppose that the rate of change to Romeo’s love was positively proportional to Juliet’s, and Juliet was negatively proportional to Romeo,” Sifuentes said. “Romeo was going to be eager-beaver and Juliet was a little more cautious – so we have these rates which we can solve using matrix exponentials.”
Huber was keen on that approach, so he adopted Sifuentes’s notes when teaching the course in the future.
“Teaching is a passion that drives Dr. Sifuentes’ work with students,” Huber said. “This passion influences everyone in the department. I have used his course material in my own classes to integrate cutting-edge applications with the mathematics.”
Huber said Sifuentes not only has inspired him, but others in the department as well with his distinctive take on presenting math to students.
“His course innovations have been transformative,” Huber said. “His excellent teaching is contagious and provides a model for the department. His colleagues are following in his footsteps by implementing his classroom strategies.”
IN GREAT COMPANY
Sifuentes said his first calls when he received the news of his award were to his wife, Huber and his mentor, Dr. Cristina Villalobos, a Myles and Sylvia Aaronson endowed professor, associate dean in the College of Sciences and director of Excellence in STEM Education at UTRGV. She is also a 2013 ROTA recipient.
“I think one of the reasons this is such a wonderful thing is because I know many people who have won the award,” Sifuentes said. “These are individuals I really look up to and admire.”
He said Villalobos, his mentor, is among those who always motivate Sifuentes to be a top-notch educator, along with his wife and children.
“They see how much it means to me and they see how much I put into it, and they’ve always encouraged and supported that. I don’t think I could have gone through what I’ve gone through without that support,” he said.
Typically, there would be an awards ceremony in Austin, but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a virtual ceremony will be held 9 a.m. Nov. 18 during the open session of the Board of Regents meeting.