Nurturing nature leads UTRGV ecologist Racelis to Regents’ Award

Dr. Alex Racelis, UTRGV assistant professor in the Department of Biology and the School for Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences, and 2016 recipient of the UT System Outstanding Teaching Award. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

By Gail Fagan

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – AUG. 16, 2016 – As an ecologist and a teacher, Dr. Alexis Racelis wants his students to develop a well-practiced ecological lens on the world.

“An ecologist is trained to be able to see patterns in the natural world, but also to explain them and predict what would happen if things change,” said Racelis, an assistant professor in The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Department of Biology and its School for Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences – both in the College of Sciences. “I want my students to be equipped with the tools and knowledge to recognize and detect the connections between humans and their environment and also with a spirit of action to apply these tools to their own lives and to society.”

His skill and success in creating ecologically literate students – using innovative teaching methods that include engaged scholarship, service learning and culturally relevant pedagogy – garnered Racelis The University of Texas System Board of Regents' 2016 Outstanding Teaching Award.

He is one of five UTRGV faculty to receive the award this year, considered among the highest and most prestigious in the nation to recognize teaching excellence.

Racelis and his UTRGV colleagues were among 60 faculty members from across the UT System’s 14 academic and health institutions selected to share $1.5 million in awards this year; each receives a $25,000 award.


His affinity for nature began in San Diego, where Racelis said he had a canyon down the road for a playground and a home garden in his suburban backyard. His interest in the outdoors and the environment was further nurtured by his involvement in Boy Scouts.

“Kids these days are increasingly disconnected from the outdoors, so activity that gets young people to appreciate and be invested in the environment, be it through scouting, or out-of-class learning like field trips and outdoor labs, is important,” said Racelis, who is an Eagle Scout and now a Rio Grande Valley merit badge counselor.

After he gained his B.S. in biological sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Racelis earned his M.S. in environmental science with a concentration in agroforestry from Florida International University, and his Ph.D. in environmental studies with a concentration in agroecology and natural resources management from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

He relocated to the Valley in 2009 to work as a research ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, where he conducted research in the ecology and management of invasive species prior to be being hired as a then-UT Pan American faculty member in 2013.

Racelis said a three-year fellowship he participated in as a Ph.D. student at the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Informal Learning in Schools is where, as a scientist, he learned to be an educator. As a fellow, he put his training in informal, inquiry-based and problem-based learning into practice for the first time as an educator and facilitator of workshops for science teachers in Mexico on the impact of inquiry-based learning.

“In this fellowship, I got to practice effective pedagogy and not just read about it in a book,” he said.


At UTRGV, he has built the university’s agroecology program through the support of three federal grants he wrote and directs. The grants provide opportunities for UTRGV students to acquire skills and knowledge through paid internships and travel scholarships to further success in agriculture-related careers and advanced studies.

More than half of the students coming through his program have landed a job related to agriculture within two years of graduating. He points out that agriculture is linked to many current global concerns – obesity and diabetes, biodiversity and species loss, water quality, climate change, and hunger and food insecurity. “There is no greater example of this than in the RGV,” he said.

In 2014 Racelis helped create the university's now thriving Agroecology Research and Teaching Garden and Greenhouse. The garden, the first USDA-certified organic teaching garden on a university campus in the state of Texas, provides an outdoor laboratory for students to explore ecology, biology and agriculture, often on issues like weed and pest control for area organic farmers.

“His courses are not confined to the classroom. His students learn by doing and serving the community,” wrote Dr. Robert Dearth, UTRGV biology professor and director of Engaged Scholarship and Learning, in his letter recommending Racelis for the Regents’ award. “Students in his courses have helped municipalities and area farmers using research-based approaches. These students don’t just learn something in the process, they give back.”

Katharine Jones, a former undergraduate student who is now a graduate student at UTRGV, in her nomination letter praised her professor’s use of real-life situations to teach, rather than PowerPoints or long lectures.

“He does not present one side of a situation, but makes you aware that most situations have complex relationships that are not simple to answer,” she said. “Not only did we learn about ecology, but he encouraged all of his students to learn career traits to use in our future careers.”

Jones was one of several student nominators who also praised Racelis as a confidence builder.

“He showed me that I can set my goals high as an undergraduate, because he could see my true potential, even when I could not,” Jones said.


In a course Racelis devised on urban forestry, 32 undergraduate interdisciplinary students over three semesters were tasked with identifying nearly 2,000 trees on the UTRGV Edinburg Campus. They received training from local and state foresters on tree identification, forestry techniques of measuring and grading trees, diagnosing tree health, and tree care.

Their work served as the basis of a larger effort to qualify UTRGV as a certified member of Tree Campus USA in 2015 by the national Arbor Day Foundation. UTRGV is only one of 18 Texas campuses with this distinction, and only the second in UT System.

Racelis’ student, Stefani Ocon, who since graduating has worked as a biological science aide with the USDA, described the tree management plan efforts as challenging, but said she loved every minute of it.

“I found myself looking at trees through a different lens, seeing trees in a way I never really did, and much and in different ways trees play a role in our daily lives … cooling temperatures with shade, carbon sequestration, and energy savings,” she said in her nomination letter. “Probably the best impact his class had on me is that I would catch myself teaching my five-year-old son how to identify common trees and about what trees do for us, so he could share in my appreciation and knowledge.”

Racelis thinks that, for many students, this course was one of the few opportunities for students to actually apply their learning to address a broader need.

“People like to be challenged in some way, especially when they feel that they are contributing to a greater good.” Racelis said. “That is the power of service learning and community engagement. If I imagine that all my students are trained with both the skills and knowledge that can be applied to address problems in their own lives and beyond, I can’t help but be excited for our future.”

Racelis will join the other winners Aug. 24 to accept his award at a special ceremony in Austin.

Read more about all the 2016 and prior winners at The University of Texas System's Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards website.

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