Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awardee Mathews challenges and inspires students

Dr. Christine Mathews, UTRGV Department of Biology lecturer and 2016 recipient of the UT System Outstanding Teaching Award (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

By Cheryl Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – AUGUST 17, 2016 – Dr. Christine Mathews, lecturer in the Department of Biology at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, was torn between pursuing a career in music or her other love – science.

Unable to deny the tug of the family legacy, she chose a life of science.

Barely 30 years old, epidemiologist and classically trained musician Mathews joins an elite group of 60 faculty throughout The University of Texas System’s academic and health institutions being honored this year – one of five UTRGV faculty members – to be a recipient of the 2016 Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards.

The award is the UT System Board of Regents’ highest honor, offered annually in recognition of faculty members who have demonstrated extraordinary classroom performance and innovation in undergraduate instruction at the UT System’s nine academic and six health institutions.

Raised in a home in which both parents were geological engineers, Mathews elected to follow the lead of a plethora of relatives who had gone the health sciences route.

“Geology is a fascinating subject, and while I loved the study of the natural world, I realized my interests leaned less on intriguing geologic formations of the past and more toward the fascinating, morbid infectious diseases of today,” Mathews said.

After earning her Ph.D. in epidemiology from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston – School of Public Health, Mathews was eager to have her own classroom and laboratory, where she could challenge and nurture students.

“My first foray into the classroom as an instructor was overwhelming. I felt lost as to how to convey information in an engaging and effective manner, and I struggled to understand how to accurately and fairly gauge student mastery of course content,” she said. “Mostly, I was struggling with how to get students to take charge of their own learning process.”

Mathews began a process of experimentation and reflection. She tested new ideas for course assessments and engagement, while reflecting on which courses, educators and assignments had had the greatest and most lasting impact on her personally.

Her teaching methods emphasize hands-on, collaborative work.

“The primary goal for my project-based assessments is to include as many student learning outcomes as possible, assessed through as many varied ways as possible, all while maximizing the amount of student engagement,” she said. “I like my projects to ‘pack a punch.’”

In one assignment, Mathews collaborated with 2014 ROTA winner Dr. Diana Dominguez, associate professor in the Department of Literatures and Cultural Studies, to engage upper-level biology and English students in a collaborative children’s book about infectious disease outbreaks of historical importance.

“The project was challenging but well-received by students in both disciplines, and represents the value of collaboration between disciplines in achieving learning outcomes,” Mathews said.

To foster teambuilding skills and build camaraderie among students, she includes mystery tasks, or case studies, for the class to solve jointly. But, she does not shy away from an old-fashioned quiz.

“Dr. Mathews emphasized the need for studying daily,” said Samantha Gomez, a 2015 UTRGV biology graduate just beginning her first year at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. “She includes quizzes after every chapter, one way of helping her students build long-lasting study skills.”

Mathews’ ability to motivate students is evident in her remarkably high end-of-semester student evaluations. Her student testimonials are glowing.

“Dr. Mathews’ lectures are always an exciting adventure,” said Hilario Obregon, a May 2016 UTRGV biology graduate who financed his education by being a firefighter with the City of McAllen. “Every day is always something new and thought provoking … I really like her ‘parasite of the day,’ which consists of a five-minute lecture on a unique parasite and how it infects its target host.”

Nicholas Sanchez, who has just completed his first semester in the UTRGV Department of Physician Assistant Studies, credits his success in the program to the strong physiology base her classes provided. And, she helped him grow his self-confidence.

“There was a time when I did not believe in myself, nor did I believe that I was intelligent enough to be an outstanding student,” he said. “However, I developed a new outlook in Dr. Mathews’ classes. She ignited a spark in me, and I became a determined student.”

A natural outgrowth of her own involvement in community projects like local science fairs, the Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology Week and Rio Grande Valley Science and Arts Festival, community engagement and service are priorities that Mathews impresses upon her students.

She engages students in projects that connect them to the next generation in their community, to inspire youths to see the value and potential in the field of science.

In one case, she challenged her BIOL 4400 students to create a mock science fair project to teach middle school students at Brownsville’s Episcopal Day School about scientific concepts and the process of science in preparation for the school’s upcoming science fair. She graded them on their ability to communicate the process of the scientific method and the technical content of the projects in a manner that was understandable to the middle school students.

Another type of service-learning project Mathews assigns is meant to challenge students’ awareness of the needs of their community. Last fall, she engaged her mammalian physiology students in a community outreach pilot designed to help students connect the technical and applied content of their course with a personal project involving the impact of disease in their peers, family and/or broader community.

“It is thrilling to see the direct impact these community service projects have had on student awareness,” Mathews said. “One student said she never realized how hard it was for her mother, who has diabetes, to eat healthy and appropriate foods, until she took on the challenge of teaching cooking classes for individuals with diabetes.”

Mathews and the other recipients of the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards will be honored at a banquet to be held on Wednesday, Aug. 24, in Austin. Each receives $25,000 and a gold medallion. More than $16 million has been awarded to deserving faculty members since the program began in 2009. 

A complete list of winners by institution is available at the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards website.

UTRGV Senior Editor
UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications