Lauded Professor Says Teaching Takes Skill and Perserverence
President's Award Goes to Dr. Matthew Goeckner, Department of Mathematical Sciences Head

Dr. Matthew Goeckner

Dr. Matthew Goeckner with student Stuart Yun.

By his own description, Dr. Matthew Goeckner was a “disaster” as a teacher the first time he stepped into a UT Dallas classroom as an associate professor of electrical engineering.

“Two weeks before I started here, I was handed a book for the class I would be teaching,” said Goeckner, now a tenured professor and head of UT Dallas’ Department of Mathematical Sciences. “A couple of weeks into the class I decided I hated the book, and that there had to be a better way to teach this material. But according to my student reviews, I was a disaster.”

That was in 1999. Today, however, overwhelmingly positive recommendations from Goeckner’s students have earned him the President’s Outstanding Teaching Award for the 2011-2012 academic year. Goeckner received the award, one of the University’s highest accolades for faculty, at a recent convocation.

“For those who are good at teaching, it doesn’t come naturally,” Goeckner said. “They have worked at it. There are many faculty members at this University who are very good teachers, and every one of them has worked hard to learn to teach and to work well with students. That’s something I had to do as well, and I still try to learn.”

Goeckner earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from Southern Illinois University and his PhD in plasma physics from the University of Iowa. At UT Dallas he also is a professor of mechanical engineering and of electrical engineering, and is an affiliate professor in the departments of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Science and Mathematics Education. In addition, he has served as interim and associate head of mechanical engineering.

Goeckner has taught a variety of topics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, including math for engineering students, electromagnetism and fluid dynamics, as well as plasma physics and plasma technology, which are his primary areas of research.

“It’s hard to imagine how he finds the time to be involved in so many aspects of university life,” Dr. Ivor Page, associate professor of computer science and chair of the selection committee for the award, said of Goeckner. “But spend a few minutes with him and you’ll soon understand how passionate he is about teaching and UT Dallas students. His students greatly enjoy his classes and argue that he works hard to help them understand the most difficult subjects.”

Together with colleagues, Goeckner developed the course “Introduction to Mechanical Engineering,” first offered in 2008 to the inaugural freshman class of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. It’s a class designed to help incoming UT Dallas students transition to the college workload and help them learn how to be better students.

Mechanical engineering student Cassius Fagioli took Goeckner’s class and said the teacher’s suggestions – such as rewriting class notes – have paid off.

“Dr. Goeckner definitely has some really good ideas,” said Fagioli, who now is conducting plasma physics experiments in Goeckner’s laboratory. “He asks good questions, the kind you like answering because they make you think in an enjoyable way.”

In 2011, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science expanded the reach of the “Intro” course to students in all its departments. In fall 2012 a version also will be offered to students in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

“Dr. Goeckner is committed to student learning and engagement,” said Dr. Sheila Amin Gutierrez de Pineres, dean of undergraduate education at UT Dallas. “His lab is a learning environment for undergraduates, and his graduate students are mentors. The opportunities he provides students are unparalleled and prepare undergraduates for the best graduate programs and rewarding careers.”

Goeckner’s advice to early-career teachers is the same advice he himself takes to heart:

“Success in teaching is a matter of having the desire to learn to be a better teacher, to always want to improve what you do, both in research and in teaching,” Goeckner said. “As long as you’re doing that, you’ll get there.

“I learn from the students as much as they learn from me,” he added. “I don’t think there’s a better job in the world than being a professor. The students keep you alive.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].