Calendar request upon calendar request, Erica Irlbeck, Ed.D., worked to fit in meetings while on sabbatical. A calendar request from the Dean’s office appeared in her inbox and she prepared to receive a new marketing project. As she entered the Zoom meeting, she was surprised to see several important individuals appear on the screen and wondered about the tasks being added to her plate. As the presentation changed slides, a congratulations message appeared on the screen. Irlbeck had just been awarded one of the highest teaching awards a professor can receive.
Irlbeck was nominated to represent the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources where she would undergo the application process for the National Teaching and Student Engagement Award. The award recognizes faculty members for their use of innovative teaching methods. In the fall of 2021, Irlbeck was named one of two recipients for the award by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Excellence in College and University Teaching in Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“It’s very affirming and a huge honor to receive this award,” Irlbeck said. “It is a very proud moment in my career.”
Professors from any public and land grant university can be nominated for this award, but it is not given to just anyone. Applicants endure an extensive application and review process. Irlbeck’s innovative teaching strategies made her easily stand out for this award because of the unique additions she has contributed to the Davis College.
Serving as the current faculty advisor, Irlbeck founded Picador Creative, a service center that provides communications products for West Texas businesses by college students. This provides students the opportunity to gain real world experience working with clients to create products to fit their needs before entering the workforce.
Before entering academia, Irlbeck worked in agricultural broadcasting news, public relations and sales. Irlbeck said she credits these industries for teaching her how to be a good coworker and learning how to work with different personality types at a young age which offered insight for her future as a professor.
In addition to Picador Creative, Irlbeck has helped start several other projects at the university including a research grant in scientific communications to assist scientists in communicating their research to the public. These projects showcase her passion and drive for creating an environment for agriculture students to thrive in.
Cindy Akers, Ed.D., interim dean for the Davis College, played a large role in nominating Irlbeck for the award. The pair have known each other since Irlbeck was a graduate student in the department.
“She’s definitely somebody who is very creative and innovative,” Akers said. “She’s always looking for new courses, new techniques or new ways in which we can do things better, so you can always count on her for that.”
Irlbeck is always seeking out the needs of the Davis College in hopes of finding a solution, Akers said. Her initiative to develop nontraditional agricultural programs, such as Picador Creative, and research provides enhanced educational opportunities for students.
Inside the classroom, Irlbeck strives to cater to the learning style of every student. She said she accomplishes this by teaching interactively and allowing students to view lesson materials in various ways.
Students can also be a determining factor of a professor’s drive to succeed. Irlbeck said her students have inspired her to create opportunities because of the sheer dedication they show toward her courses.
“It’s easy to teach when you have good students,” Irlbeck said. “You can tell they want to be here, and it makes a huge difference in me wanting to be here too.”
After students graduate from the program, Irlbeck keeps up with them through email and social media, allowing her to see the impact she has made in the lives of her students, while celebrating their successes with them. Whether it be new jobs, promotions, or family updates, Irlbeck said she enjoys viewing them all.
Being a professor in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications requires an understanding of working with colleagues, Irlbeck said. The agricultural communications faculty collaborate on course work for their students and other activities. Courses such as the agricultural communications block combine teaching and assignments between four courses and professors allowing for more collaboration between colleagues.
“We have a great office,” Irlbeck said. “Our co-workers are very friendly to each other, we collaborate very well together, and I just could not have asked for a better working environment, so I’m very blessed to work where I do.”