Cristina Villalobos: A Valley grown national leader in STEM education
Posted: 11/25/2013
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Challenging students has always played an important role in the teaching philosophy of Cristina Villalobos, professor of mathematics at The University of Texas-Pan American.

- Dr. Cristina Villalobos
"Throughout my K-12 and higher education, I became confident in my mathematical abilities when I was challenged by instructors. In fact, when I was not challenged I noticed I questioned myself and my instructor's idea of whether he or she thought I could tackle difficult programs," the Donna native said. "I like it when my students become empowered by learning new knowledge. I want them to be empowered by learning and consider it a lifelong process."

Her talent of infusing her own love of learning into teaching, mentoring and providing the best learning opportunities for students has garnered her The University of Texas Board of Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award. She was one of six UT Pan American faculty members to win the award this year, considered one of the largest in the nation for rewarding faculty performance.

It's not the only award Villalobos has received recently recognizing her talents. In 2012 she was named a HENAAC (Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation) Luminary for her contributions to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and to the Hispanic technical community as a leader and role model. In October this year she received the Distinguished Undergraduate Institution Mentor Award from the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

Her interest in math and teaching takes root

Her rise as a top national mathematician sprang from humble beginnings in the Valley. She was a Head Start student and had stints working as a shoe sales clerk and a cashier during her summers exploring possible careers. Under the influence of two Donna High School teachers, she entered the Texas Pre-freshman Engineering Program (TEX PREP) at UTPA where she got hands-on experiences in math and science and learned about the opportunities in those fields. While still in high school, she later traveled to The University of Texas at Austin to participate in a UIL competition.

"I thought, let me try college; I want to become a high school math teacher. My high school teachers motivated me a lot, they were good role models. When I learned about UT Austin, I decided that is where I wanted to go to school," she said.

At UT Austin, where the first-generation college student earned her Bachelor of Science in mathematics, Villalobos was encouraged to attend a summer mathematics research program at the University of California at Berkeley run by Uri Treisman (a pioneering math educator and advocate for equity in education).

"I went there for two summers. Going to a summer research program externally from your campus provides you with the opportunity to conduct research with other students from across the nation - you get to know students and get to ask them about experiences at their school. You are also in this tight environment where everyone is doing research and we all have this goal of getting ahead and learning," said Villalobos, who in her role as faculty advisor for SACNAS has sent more than 30 UTPA students to summer research programs.

As an undergraduate student, Villalobos also conducted research at Sandia National Laboratories and at Rice University, where she earned her master's and Ph.D. in computational and applied mathematics under the guidance of Dr. Richard Tapia, a renowned mathematician and winner of the 2011 National Science Medal.

An educator with high expectations, even greater support

At UTPA since 2001, Villalobos calls herself a "facilitator" when working problems in class, using the latest technology and software or graphs to illustrate concepts and to help students learn. To provide meaning to math formulas, she shows students applications of the formulas to real-life situations and problems and incorporates collaborative learning to help students understand the importance of working with each other.

"I help them understand that team work is needed to solve problems, just like it is needed in industry to work on projects and provide ideas," she said.

Villalobos also believes assessment is an important tool in learning.

"Students need to have continuous assessment so that they can determine their progress in the course. In one of my math classes at UT Austin I remember that I just had a mid-term and a final for semester grades and I thought, 'you got to be kidding me,'" she said.

In her role as an educator, Villalobos has also persistently sought to provide students with opportunities to become successful in their academics and careers by creating workshops on how to apply to research programs and graduate school. She has taken nearly 40 students to national conferences and helped prepare, mentor and send eight students to doctoral programs in applied math or statistics. She also directs the University's National Science Foundation-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program which financially assists students participating in research with faculty.

"I am proud to have helped contribute to preparing these students, who are Mexican-American, for graduate programs as our students at UTPA and our local community need role models who have similar backgrounds, and we are addressing a need in this nation to produce more PhDs and more faculty from underrepresented groups," she said.

Winning grants to improve STEM education, create future leaders

Her commitment to undergraduate education has extended to help improve STEM pedagogy and learning. She was one of the curriculum coordinators for the University's successful Quality Enhancement Plan to enhance learning outcomes in developmental math classes of elementary and intermediate algebra.

Villalobos has also helped as principal investigator (PI) or co-PI to procure more than $6 million in grants for educational, service and professional development activities for UTPA students. A $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense - one of only three awarded nationwide - established UTPA's Center of Excellence in STEM Education, which she now directs with the goal of strengthening STEM academic programs and increasing the number of STEM graduates particularly those from underrepresented groups.

In his written recommendation for her to receive the Regents Award, her department colleague Dr. Virgil U. Pierce described Villalobos as a constant advocate of graduate education being an important and attainable goal to which UTPA students should strive.

"I have witnessed firsthand the effect that her patient yet insistent discussion of this agenda has on our students, transforming them from students focused on obtaining their four-year degrees into students focused on becoming mathematicians, scientists and engineers," he wrote.

Rolando J. Olivares, a UTPA graduate and now in his third year as a doctoral student in the Department of Statistics at Texas A&M University-College Station, described in his recommendation letter Villalobos' remarkable ability to stimulate students and add personality to the course material.

"Students can feel the energy and optimism radiate from her mentoring and teaching," wrote Olivares, who participated in an undergraduate research program at Iowa State University and attended several conferences due to her mentorship.

Olivares wrote that all of Villalobos' actions create and promote the protégé sense of competence and confidence that students need.

"In universities, the effort of a professor makes all the difference in helping students reach their full potential. If we would have professors like Dr. Villalobos teaching everything and aiding students, then I am positive that every student would be eager to learn and achieve the most even in a field as challenging as mathematics," he wrote, listing all of his fellow Ph.D. students she has taught or mentored. "Dr. Villalobos is gradually molding each and every one of us from a student into a colleague."

See The University of Texas System's Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards website to view all 63 faculty members from the UT System's nine academic institutions selected to receive this year's award. Learn more about prior UTPA winners of the Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards at the Office of Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs website.