BY Vicky Brito
Dr. Mounir Ben Ghalia’s teaching philosophy has four prime ingredients: passion for teaching, preparation and organization, connecting with students, and facilitating an engaging learning environment.
“One thing I know for sure about me is that I am very passionate about teaching, and I get very excited when I get into the classroom,” said Ben Ghalia, professor of electrical engineering at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Ben Ghalia is one of four UTRGV faculty members being honored with the 2017 University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. Across the UT System, Ben Ghalia is among the 56 faculty this year to receive the ROTA, one of the most prestigious awards in higher education in the country.
“I am very humbled and very happy with the award,” Ben Ghalia said. “But mostly, I am very grateful. So many people were responsible for my receiving this award, such as my peers, external reviewers and my current and former students.”
Ben Ghalia joined UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American in 1999. Ben Ghalia came to the United States from his native Tunisia in 1991, and earned a Ph.D. in engineering with a concentration in electrical engineering in 1995 from Tennessee Technological University.
He has served as a postdoctoral associate and assistant research professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he conducted research on intelligent systems.
At UTRGV, he has served as a principal investigator and director of a National Science Foundation-funded project titled “Research Experiences for Teachers in Emerging and Novel Engineering Technologies,” which supported professional development of STEM teachers to introduce engineering into K-12 classrooms.
21ST CENTURY CHALLENGES IN THE CLASSROOM
Ben Ghalia says he is careful to avoid stagnancy in his teaching approach, and works to develop new teaching strategies that ensure student success in understanding the concepts he is presenting.
“I have been with the university since 1999, and since then I’ve watched the student population evolve. So my teaching and delivery have to evolve, too, even though we try to keep the same goals, which revolve around the student learning outcomes we want to achieve,” he said.
He currently is teaching Introduction to Electrical Engineering, and Numerical Computation and Data Visualization, a class he helped create when he first came to the university.
Spring 2016 brought Ben Ghalia face-to-face with a new challenge to his evolving teaching methods.
“I had to teach an Interactive Television course, also known as ITV, for the first time,” he said. “So I had a class in Brownsville and a class in Edinburg. I had not taught his type of course before.”
He wanted to make sure that students on both campuses got an equal amount of face time, so he would alternate teaching locations.
“Monday, I was in Edinburg, and Wednesday, I was in Brownsville,” he explained. “I realized that this might not be very sustainable, because just the commuting part with my other teaching duties was difficult.”
Having to get creative within the geographic constraints, Ben Ghalia did what he does so well: He developed a simple, but effective approach to engaging students from both campuses.
“One of the things I like to do in all my classes is to learn every student’s name,” he said. “So, I would see my students in Brownsville on the TV monitors, and I would call each one of them by name. I feel that it is very important to ensure all students have the same experience.”
The course, Numerical Computation and Data Visualization, had more than 20 students on each campus, which meant Ben Ghalia had to learn all of those names. The course is now in its third semester as an ITV-based course, Ben Ghalia said, and each time, his strategy for teaching via ITV improves.
“When you learn the names of your students, you get them engaged in participation,” he said. “When I came to the university, the students were kind of shy, and I found that learning is only part of the equation. The other part is building student confidence.”
Another favorite strategy for Ben Ghalia to help with classroom engagement is to call a student up to the instructor’s desk to explain an answer to the rest of the class. He admits the strategy is not initially popular with the class.
“That is my teaching style. Now, some of my students who have graduated have told me that strategy helped build their confidence,” he said. “Once you’re confident, you will be eager to learn and learning becomes a natural process.”
“I think that is one thing I like about teaching – the constant challenges. It improves your teaching,” Ben Ghalia said. “You’re never perfect, so there is always the learning part.”
Former student Estrella Medina said Ben Ghalia was a major influence on her undergraduate career, and that influence continues today in her professional career as a Robotics Flight Controller for the International Space Station at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“Dr. Ben Ghalia has impacted my life tremendously,” she said. “His passion for his work is evident to all. His true support and care for each of his students is palpable.
“I am very fortunate that I was able to have him as one of my professors, and I feel excited for his future students,” she said.
ROTA recipients will be honored at a banquet on Wednesday, Aug. 23, in Austin. Each receives $25,000 and a gold medallion.
A complete list of winners by institution is available at the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards website.