In his six years studying physics at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Appalachian State University, Matt Pegram had Dr. Jennifer Burris only one semester. But that semester had a huge impact on him.
“Dr. Burris changed my life,” said Pegram, who adjusted his academic path after Burris’ class, graduated in 2014 and now works as an application engineer at National Instruments in Austin, Texas. “I have never had a harder class in my life and have never struggled to do well in a class as much as I did in her classical mechanics class.”
Dr. Burris teaches introductory physics courses, classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, mathematical methods and a number of lab-based classes.
In Burris’ class, Pegram continues, he learned more about classical mechanics — and more about himself — than in any other class he’s ever taken. “She taught me that with hard work and determination, I could accomplish things far more than I ever believed,” he said. “And she taught me that hard work can beat intelligence, and that is something I carry with me to this day.”
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded Burris, an associate professor and graduate program director in App State’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for ASU. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, a public, residential high school for gifted students.
At various times, Burris teaches introductory physics courses, classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, mathematical methods and a number of lab-based classes. She also directs the graduate program in engineering physics, teaches the graduate-level colloquium course and mentors dozens of students each term.
In 2008, Dr. Burris helped form an App State research group that brings together scientists from a wide range of disciplines — physics, biology, chemistry and computer science — to increase the understanding of biological systems and develop local and statewide biotechnology.
And in 2011, she co-founded the ASU Biophysics and Optical Sciences Facility (BiyOSeF), which draws in external funding to conduct multidisciplinary research using Raman spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, optical tweezers and Raman-tweezers. Her research currently focuses on the automation of scientific instruments, which is of interest to many companies and agencies, like NASA. (One student working in the lab this summer is actually funded by NASA through the North Carolina Space Grant Consortium, Burris said.)
“The research lab is very different from the classroom experience,” Burris said. “It’s a much more open type of learning process for the students; it’s much easier to tailor things to individual people.”
“She’s got a very dynamic laboratory,” said Mike Briley, who chairs the App State physics and astronomy department, “and that’s hard to do — balancing it all and getting that sort of community built up in the lab, where you’ve got a lot of students engaged and excited about what’s happening.”
In addition, Briley admires Burris’ engaged, energetic and enthusiastic presence, the high standards to which she holds her students and her willingness to serve as a mentor. “Every time I walk down the hall,” he said, “she’s got students in her office.”
Brooke Hester, the assistant professor in physics and astronomy who cofounded the BiyOSeF research facility with Burris, describes Burris as open-minded with a sense of humor and “absolutely dedicated to excellence in all forms.” In addition to keeping track of where students are in the program and who needs to take what classes (“Her brain is our database,” Hester said), she serves as a moral compass for the department.
“She’s an extremely ethical person,” Hester said. “If I have a situation, I can get her advice on what is the right thing to do. She’s a resource for everyone in decision-making.”
Helping students on their lifelong journey
Burris did not follow a traditional path into academia. She grew up in Durham and studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for three or four semesters before deciding to drop out. At the time, she said, she was more interested in her social life than her education.
Dr. Burris finds teaching physics and helping students set and work toward their career goals rewarding.
Working in the bedding department at Belk Department Store, however, she realized that she needed a degree to achieve her goals in life. She re-enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the second time around, approached her studies with a vigor that carried her straight through a bachelor’s degree in applied science (with a concentration in physics) and a master’s and doctorate in physics from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
She chose physics because it enables her to understand how the world around her works. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and the most intellectual thing I’d ever done,” she said. “Since I loved it and it challenged me, I stuck with it.”
After receiving her doctorate, Burris taught physics two-and-a-half years at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colorado. Though she loved the position, she began to miss both conducting research and the South. When offered a position at App State in 2007, she seized the opportunity.
Burris describes her lecturing style as fairly traditional. Rather than using PowerPoint, she prefers to deliver information with chalk in hand, because it allows her to adapt her material on the fly in response to her students’ understanding.
“I have a very open classroom; my students are comfortable asking questions, and I like to adapt the way I’m teaching a certain subject and explaining a certain topic,” she said. “In my lecture, I encourage them to respectfully question what I’m doing if they see a problem. Often, my students will come up with clever ways of doing things that I haven’t thought of.”
Burris incorporates demonstrations into her teaching as well. She demonstrates the Principle of Conservation of Momentum, for example, by expelling a fire extinguisher while sitting on a skateboard.
One of the biggest challenges she faces, she said, is explaining the complexities of physics to students with different learning styles. “Physics can be described quite well with mathematics, but many students are not incredibly strong with mathematics, and so you have to explain it in a more conceptual manner,” she said. “Trying to come up with examples from things they’ve experienced is an important thing to do. All of that is quite challenging.”
In addition to her responsibilities in the classroom and lab, Burris serves on the advisory board of the BRIDGES leadership program for women in higher education offered through William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education. From 2010 to 2014, she worked with an App State Academy of Science Scholarship, a five-year program funded by the National Science Foundation intended to increase retention in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and in 2013, she won the Harvey R. Durham Outstanding Freshman Advocate Award, an annual ASU award honoring an employee whose performance significantly improves the freshman experience. Formerly an assistant editor for the American Association of Physics Teachers’ peer-reviewed journal The Physics Teacher, Burris currently serves on the publication’s editorial board.
Overall, what Burris most finds most rewarding about her work is not only teaching physics, but helping students set and work toward their career goals.
“It’s about helping people gain knowledge and confidence and become better at what they want to do,” she said. “It’s about helping them on their lifelong journey.”
As far as Matt Pegram is concerned, Burris is succeeding.
“I owe Dr. Burris a debt I can never repay,” he said. “I just hope that one day I have the opportunity to mentor someone and hope I can be half the mentor she was.”
Written by Christina Cooke, freelance writer.
Photos by Appalachian State University.