“You can teach just about anything with salt, baking soda and vinegar,” says Dr. Barufaldi, grinning at the cart loaded with teaching supplies just outside his office in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education. The 43-year veteran of higher education at UT Austin exudes a spritely joviality unmatched by some of his much younger colleagues and eschews coat and tie in favor of more casual, Texas-appropriate attire. Barufaldi has just wrapped up his last-ever college-level class at UT: undergraduate elementary science methods, and seems far from mournful. It’s clear there are plenty of to-dos keeping him occupied, and one can’t help but pick up on a subtle buzz of excited energy.
His energy is legendary in the college. Over the entirety of his professional career in higher education, the Ruben E. Hinojosa Regents Professor, director of the Center for STEM Education and principal investigator for the Texas Regional Collaborative for Excellence in Science Teaching (TRC) has helped drive the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin to become one of the leading institutions of math and science teacher education in the country. Barufaldi, affectionately nicknamed the Godfather of STEM by peers and students, also has produced an impressive library of scholarship, including books, articles, chapters, reviews, papers and seminars delivered to audiences around the globe. In 2003, he was selected for membership in the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at UT Austin and was named a Minnie Stevens Piper Professor in 2002 for “dedication to the teaching profession.” The list of awards and works extends well beyond these pinnacle achievements, but Barufaldi keeps things in perspective. “Research, teaching and service – in that order,” he insists.
As a champion of education research, Barufaldi finds great pride in the work being done by the Center for STEM Education and the TRC. Those engines of innovation have not always run smoothly, as Barufaldi recalls. “One of the major highlights of my career was when Dean Manuel Justiz first arrived at the College of Education. UT was looking to move the STEM Center to a different college, so I wrote Dean Justiz a long letter explaining why I thought we should fight to keep it here. It belongs in education because, like our graduate programs, it’s a very integrated operation. We work with engineers, scientists, mathematicians and educators. Dean Justiz told me recently he still has a copy of that letter.”
Institutional support came in a variety of forms over the years, including constant support from the Dean’s office. “It’s great when you have support from people like Dean Justiz and Dr. Marilyn Kameen [Senior Associate Dean], who have removed a lot of barriers,” says Barufaldi. “It’s easy to operate within a system that supports you, and that includes the Advisory Council, too.”
Specializing in areas like professional development, curriculum design, instructional strategies and science teacher education, Barufaldi strove to connect teachers and learners to the best tools and information available. Most recently, his research has focused on the process of building successful, high-intensity collaboration in the science education community. Through the TRC, Barufaldi and his colleagues have spent the past 23 years changing the landscape of Texas classrooms for the better. “That has been our major contribution to education in the state of Texas and throughout the country,” says Barufaldi of bringing the TRC to the College of Education.
“My favorite part of teaching is connecting with people,” he says. “It’s so refreshing to see 19 year olds going into education and being so enthusiastic about teaching and working with young people.” When asked if his students seem to have changed over the years, Barufaldi pauses to consider, then shakes his head resolutely. “No, they haven’t changed, but the environment has. Social media, the Internet, technology in general – those things have changed.”
And what about his environment? “Everyone here is fun to work with,” he says, smiling. “When I hear professors at other institutions talk about how cutthroat their school is, I feel so lucky. There’s no one-upmanship here. It’s not ‘Look at me! I got three publications!’ it’s ‘How can I help? What can we collaborate on?’ The College of Education is very professional across all five departments. I think maybe that’s in our genes, as educators.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Barufaldi does not consider his retirement the end of his career. In fact, the next chapter seems to align best with his third element of professorial success: service. “I’m retiring from UT but not from work,” he says, assuredly, listing a packed itinerary of lectures and stints abroad as a visiting scholar. Still, it sounds like his priorities for the future, while just as ambitious as always, are aligned under a primary objective: fun. As a graduation present for his granddaughter, Barufaldi and his wife are treating their family to a trip to the Galapagos.
“Fun is number one,” says Barufaldi, once again beaming as he doles out sound advice. “If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it’s all for naught. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had fun here.”
So have we. Thank you, Dr. Barufaldi, for your research, your teaching and your service. Here’s to having fun while changing the world.