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Seven UTEP Faculty Honored for Outstanding Teaching

Updated: 8/29/11
Posted: 8/19/11

Seven faculty members from The University of Texas at El Paso were recognized for their commitment to teaching and their ability to deliver excellence to the undergraduate learning experience in the classroom.

For the third year in a row, UTEP faculty members were selected to receive The University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards. The UTEP honorees, who were recognized at a ceremony Aug. 24 on the UT Austin campus, are Keith Erekson, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of History; Bridget Konter, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Geological Sciences; Larry Lesser, Ph.D., professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences; Carolyn Mitchell, senior lecturer, Department of Communication; Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Communication; Stephen Stafford, Ph.D., professor, Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering; and Rachelle Thiewes, professor, Department of Art.

“We are very pleased and proud that another outstanding group of UTEP faculty members is being recognized by The University of Texas System Board of Regents,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “Each of these prestigious awards is a testament to the quality of UTEP faculty teachers and mentors and their dedication to UTEP’s mission of providing our 21st century students with excellent educational opportunities. All of us on the campus join in congratulating them on these well-deserved honors and thank them for all they do for UTEP and the students we serve.”

The UT System Board of Regents honored 72 faculty members from the system’s nine academic institutions who demonstrate extraordinary classroom performance and innovation at the undergraduate level. They share $1.8 million in awards.

Tenured faculty members received $30,000, tenure-track faculty were given $25,000 and contingent faculty collected $15,000 awards. Besides the cash awards, winners also received a bronze medallion and a certificate commemorating their achievement. The cash awards are among the nation’s highest for higher education faculty.

“We are incredibly proud of their accomplishments and want to thank each and every one of them for their commitment to our students and their educations,” UTEP Provost Junius Gonzales said.

In the competition for the awards, faculty candidates were subjected to rigorous examination of their teaching performance over three years by campus and external judges.

“It is our system’s responsibility to provide an exceptional education to our students, and we believe this award program not only furthers that goal, but helps promote a culture of excellence that produces better teaching, better learning and, ultimately, better prepared graduates to enter our work force,” said UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D.

Evaluations by students, peer faculty and external reviewers considered a range of activities and criteria, including classroom expertise, curricula quality, innovative course development and student learning outcomes.spacer

Carolyn Mitchell, senior lecturer in the Department of Communication, earned her bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and master’s degree in communication from UTEP. She has been with the University since 1997. In addition to teaching a variety of advertising and public relations courses, she is the faculty adviser for UTEP’s Student Ad Fed Club and the communication department’s Cotton Productions. Her students have brought home top honors for the past several years, including first place for the 2003 Toyota Matrix and 2011 JCPenney campaigns. Her students also received the first-ever Student Emmy Award in Texas for the documentary “And the Wheels Turned … the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship.”

“I am delighted, to say the least, but mostly humbled by the recognition. I would not be a 2011 recipient without the continuing encouragement of my colleagues in the Department of Communication, the backing of Dean Pat Witherspoon, the College of Liberal Arts staff and the support of Dr. Natalicio. Most importantly, I never would have been qualified for this recognition without my students … they have made me a better teacher in every respect. This award is as much their award, as it is mine,” Mitchell said.
Keith Erekson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of History, earned his master’s degree in history from Brigham Young University and Ph.D. in history from Indiana University. He joined the UTEP faculty four years ago, and teaches undergraduate and graduate history courses. He devotes most of his time to training future history teachers. Among his many achievements at the University, he founded and directs the Center for History Teaching and Learning, which provides a variety of online resources and professional development opportunities for teachers (

“I am both honored and humbled to receive this award. Teaching is a group activity, and I often reflect on the good students and supportive administration I have found here at UTEP,” Erekson said.
Bridget Konter
, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, earned her bachelor’s in physics and astronomy in 1999 from Northern Arizona University and her Ph.D. in Earth science and geophysics from the University of California San Diego. She joined the UTEP faculty in 2008 and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in computational geophysics and geology, planetary science and geographic information systems. She spends most of her academic time developing new course materials, working with undergraduate and graduate students on research about how tectonic fault systems on Earth and throughout the solar system deform and move. Among her many achievements at the University include the 2011 College of Science Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching and the 2009 Office of Research and Sponsored Projects Outstanding Research Award. 

“I love teaching students about how exciting Earth science can be. It is an honor to receive the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award and I owe a great deal of thanks to the many UTEP students and faculty that have supported me along the way,” she said.
Lawrence “Larry” Lesser, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, earned his bachelor’s in mathematics and mathematical sciences in 1986 from Rice University; his master’s in statistics in 1989 and doctorate in mathematics education in 1994 from UT Austin. He joined UTEP in 2004 and teaches statistics and math education courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, with almost all of his students being current or future teachers. Lesser spends most of his academic time in teaching and research activities that relate to making mathematics and statistics more engaging, meaningful and accessible, especially for the El Paso region’s population. His recent teaching achievements while at UTEP include being named a Fellow at the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning from 2008-11, winning a 2011 College of Science Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching, and winning the 2010 Distinguished Teaching of Mathematics Award from the Southwestern Section of the Mathematical Association of America.

“I am excited and humbled to receive the biggest award of my career. It is especially meaningful to receive it on the campus where my lifelong journey as a university instructor began 23 years ago, and I am seeking even more ways to mentor and inspire the next wave of students and faculty, as so many have already inspired me,” Lesser said.

Stacey Sowards, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Communication, earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and minor in Mexican studies and education from Colorado College. She received her master’s degree in communication from UTEP and Ph.D. in communication studies with an emphasis on intercultural communication and rhetorical theory from the University of Kansas. She joined UTEP seven years ago, and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. Between her many dedications to the University, she also is a devoted research fellow in the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies, which provides innovative research, outreach and professional initiatives in media and communications to students.

“I am humbled and truly honored to receive such an award, since there are so many great professors at UTEP,” Sowards said.
Stephen Stafford, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering, earned a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering at UTEP in 1970, and his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Rice University in 1975. He has been with UTEP since 1976. He has earned numerous teaching awards, including the ASEE and Dow Chemical Outstanding Young Engineering Faculty Award in 1980, and the ASM Bradley Stoughton Award for Young Teachers of Metallurgy in 1983 and the Outstanding Service to the University Award in 1988. He was named the Phelps Dodge Professor of Metallurgical Engineering in 2007. 

“One of the best descriptions of my approach to teaching was given by a former student,” Stafford said. “The statement ended up in print in a story about my relationship with students: ‘Most students and his colleagues would agree that when he is with his sons, he is a father and a teacher; when he is on the witness stand as an expert, he is a specialist and a teacher; when he is advising students, he is a counselor and a teacher; and when he is in the classroom, he is a father, specialist, counselor and a teacher.’"
Rachelle Thiewes, professor in the Department of Art, earned a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a Master of Fine Arts from Kent State University. She has been with the University since completing graduate school in 1976. She teaches courses in art, and says life on the border and strong cultural backgrounds give art students rich material to draw upon for their work. As an artist, she gains inspiration from the desert, mountains and lights of El Paso.

“I’m honored and humbled to receive the ROTA (2011 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award). I truly feel there are many dedicated UTEP faculty that are deserving of this award. I work with several of these individuals in the art department,” Thiewes said. 

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