Hector Ochoa Pushes Students to Dream Big, Aim High
From Across the Border, He Came to Teach and Inspire
Dr. Mukul Shirvaikar
Dr. Hector Ochoa remembers the day he left home in Guadalajara, Mexico, to travel to El Paso, Texas, and begin graduate studies in physics. His parents had left the day before on vacation, so they had already said their goodbyes.
“I was the only one home. I closed the door, left home and got on the bus, and it was a 24-hour bus trip to El Paso to start my new life,” recalled Ochoa, now an assistant professor of electrical engineering at The University of Texas at Tyler, who was recently recognized as one of the top Hispanic professors in the state.
“I was scared about starting a new part of my life and being able to survive by myself. Before that, I was always with my family,” he said. “But at the same time, I was following my dream.”
He remembers that day, not only because it was a big leap for Ochoa, then 22, but because it was a personal experience exemplifying the message he drives home to his students – dream big, have courage to venture forth and aim for the top.
Ochoa’s students know that message well.
“The thing about him that’s going to stick with me is the way that he took me under his wing – his being so friendly, teaching me things about my career and pushing me to where I am now,” said Irving Olmedo, who is beginning a doctorate program in computer engineering this fall at the University of Michigan after graduating in May from UT Tyler with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering.
Ochoa’s inspirational guidance, passion for education and teaching methods have made him a favorite professor among students and won him acclaim at UT Tyler and beyond:
- He won UT Tyler’s Outstanding Electrical Engineering Professor of the Year in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
- Last Year, he received UT Tyler’s prestigious Jack and Dorothy Faye White Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, from a university-wide pool of faculty nominees.
- He was UT Tyler’s 2012-13 nomination for the statewide Piper Professor award of the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation.
- The North Texas Consortium of Colleges and Universities named Ochoa among its 2012 Outstanding Distance Learning Faculty.
- Last year, he won the Best Faculty Paper Award at the American Society of Engineering Education Gulf-Southwest Annual Conference for his paper relating to online teaching of linear circuits and his development of a video teaching tool. His work was chosen by peers from among papers submitted by academics in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico.
- This year, he won third place at the ASEE Gulf-Southwest Annual Conference for his paper on take-home laboratories, which allow students to work on virtual electrical engineering experiments at home.
- And in March, Online Schools Texas recognized him as one of 14 top Hispanic professors in the state for his award-winning track record.
Matt Davis of Online Schools Texas and manager of StateStats.org said the educators chosen as top Hispanic professors are united by their Hispanic heritage and fervent dedication to educating students.
“There were a large number of professors who could have been selected, but we think these 14 are exemplary,” Davis said.
Ochoa genuinely cares about his students and role as a teacher, said Dr. Mukul Shirvaikar, professor and chair of the UT Tyler Department of Electrical Engineering.
“This is reflected by his instructor evaluations, which have consistently exceeded nine out of a maximum of 10 – and four out of a maximum of five on the new scale – each semester he has taught at the university,” Shirvaikar said. “Dr. Hector Ochoa has shown truly remarkable application, zeal and enthusiasm for his role as a teacher on our campus.”
His Inspiration to Inspire
Asked how he became interested in teaching, Ochoa recalled his high school days in Mexico, when his uncle asked him to tutor his younger cousins. They were flunking middle-school math, and their teacher had given up on them.
Ochoa took it up as his personal challenge to help them, resulting in his cousins’ grades rising from F’s to B’s. He then realized that his cousins, who were not top students, had simply lacked the right tools and opportunities to understand the material. his high school days in Mexico, when his uncle asked him to tutor his younger cousins. They were flunking middle-school math, and their teacher had given up on them.
“It’s easy to teach good students. … The real challenge is teaching students who are not as good as the other ones,” Ochoa said.
He liked the challenge. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Guadalajara, he earned his master of science in physics and his Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso.Ochoa decided to become a professor while getting his Ph.D. under the guidance of his doctorate adviser, Dr. Benjamin Flores.
“He is one of the best professors that I have ever seen in my life,” Ochoa said. “He knows how to teach, he knows how to entertain students. He’s one of the best, and that’s when I said, ‘I want to be like him someday.’”
Ochoa came to UT Tyler in September 2007 as a visiting assistant professor, and was promoted to assistant professor the next year. Ochoa has been busy ever since passing on the gifts of inspiration and time.
He teaches online courses, communication systems and MATLAB® for engineering students, while also serving as adviser for the university’s student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the university’s IEEE Robotics Team. His research focus is improving radar systems for target detection and identification, mainly for military applications.
“Dr. Ochoa is not only doing an outstanding job as a teacher, but he is indeed going above and beyond by implementing novel ideas for the improvement of engineering education at the undergraduate and graduate level,” Shirvaikar said.
Ochoa’s creation of an online course with an innovative video teaching tool was the basis for his winning ASEE’s Best Faculty Paper Award for outstanding professional development in “Bridging Theory and Practice in Engineering and Technology Education.” His inspiration for the project grew out of a need to meet a growing demand for a course required by both mechanical and electrical engineering degree programs.
Ochoa is currently investigating online and hybrid course offerings in basic areas of electrical engineering.
“This could have a revolutionary impact on engineering education in East Texas,” Shirvaikar said, noting that it would enable many nontraditional students to attend school without giving up their means of livelihood.
Ochoa uses innovative and flexible teaching methods to adapt to students’ unique circumstances and learning styles, because he believes that is the key to reaching a broader range of students.
“I try to understand how they are thinking and how they are learning,” he said. “So if they have a problem, I’ll try to figure out another way to teach or clarify the problem.”
The Final Word
What matters most to Ochoa is how well his students learn and how happy they are with his teaching method and communication style.
It follows that of his awards and honors, he is proudest of being selected by students four different years as the Outstanding Electrical Engineering Professor.
“All of those awards are really nice recognitions,” he said. “But for me at a personal level, being recognized by the students as a good professor is the most important thing.”
The undergraduate and master’s level electrical engineering students vote anonymously each year for the award. Students say they appreciate Ochoa’s approachability, smiling persona and gift for teaching.
“It was easy just to walk into his office and talk to him. He had an open-door policy. … He was more than happy to help me with my questions,” said Pavan Vutukur, who graduated from UT Tyler in 2011 with a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
Vutukur credits Ochoa’s guidance and influence for playing a major role in developing his interest in research. Vutukur is now a faculty research assistant at Oregon State University involved in the study of ocean currents and their interplay with atmospheric conditions.
Olmedo, too, credits Ochoa for giving life-changing guidance and encouragement.
“He was one of the people who started opening my eyes to pursuing a Ph.D.,” said Olmedo, who aspires to become a professor after he finishes graduate school at the University of Michigan and gains some industry experience.
While in school, Olmedo, who was a first-generation college student, had decided against applying for a summer program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he thought his chances of acceptance were slim.
Olmedo applied and wound up getting into the summer program at MIT, which also helped open doors for him at the University of Michigan.
As Ochoa tells his students, “Always reach for the top. Worst case scenario – if you don’t get to the top, you will wind up in the middle.”
Or they’ll surprise themselves, hit their target and reach the top, like Ochoa.
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