Prof’s Teaching Reaches Students Beyond Tech

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Thanks to videoconferencing equipment and a few large-screen televisions, Jennifer Curtis is reaching out to students beyond Tech’s Midtown campus.  

Curtis, an assistant professor in the School of Physics, participates in the Direct to Discovery program, a Georgia Tech Research Institute program that brings research labs into K-12 classrooms with a little help from technology. 

The program’s goal is to help students better understand various areas of science and mathematics in a way that fosters ongoing interest in these areas.   

“Since my lab is so interdisciplinary, we can tie into the curriculum of a physics, chemistry or biology class,” she said. 

According to Kimm Bankston, the Winder-Barrow high school teacher Curtis has worked with, the demos have been quite successful and have stimulated student discussions about science that extend beyond the classroom.

“I think the program is an excellent way to inspire the next generation of engineers and scientists,” Curtis added. 

Recently, The Whistle had an opportunity to learn more about Curtis and her approach to teaching. Here’s what we learned:  

How did you get to Georgia Tech? 

In 2006, both my husband and I were seeking tenure-track academic positions. In the end, it was clear that Tech was the best fit for our combined interests both professionally and personally.

How did you become interested in your area of teaching and research?    

When I started out as an undergraduate at Columbia University, I wanted to pursue photography and writing. But I experienced a major creative block, which led me back to my first love, science and mathematics. The next semester, I started taking physics classes and the rest is history. As for becoming a biophysicist, I always loved biology and after observing that some of the most interesting work done by physicists was in the area of biophysics, I knew where I needed to be.    

In a few sentences, tell us a little bit about your research focus.

My research group studies the mechanics of cells and biomaterials. Also, we invent or develop unique tools to help answer questions about, for example, the coating of a  cell.       

What is your greatest challenge as an instructor, and how have you dealt with it? 

Helping students figure out how to learn and study effectively is always a challenge. For example, there is always a large group of students who work very hard and spend vast amounts of time studying for my introductory physics course. Yet, their performance on tests does not reflect their efforts. I am experimenting with how to instruct students to get to the point where they can internalize and comprehend the difference between deeply understanding how and why they solve problems a certain way versus superficially memorizing or accepting a concept or problem-solving strategy in physics.  

What piece of technology could you not live without as an instructor?

I think a tablet PC works wonders for large classroom lecture halls.   

Where is the best place to grab lunch and what do you order? 

My favorite place used to be Bobby and June’s, but it recently closed. I’d order the Salisbury steak with a side or two of vegetables.

Tell me something unusual about yourself. 

When I was younger, I was a competitive épée fencer and trained several hours a day while I was in high school and for part of my time in college.



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