Amy Pope faces a challenge at the start of the semester: introducing physics – algebra-based physics, of all things – to more than 600 Gen Ed students and making sure they feel good about the semester ahead.
It’s a teaching challenge Pope loves and has become successful at facing. So successful, in fact, that she has been awarded the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Association of General and Liberal Studies (AGLS), the national organization for general education program administrators.
A Clemson graduate who received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in physics, Pope is a senior lecturer in physics and astronomy in the College of Science. Pope has been teaching for 18 years.
“I graduated from Clemson and they offered to let me stay and teach. I did that as a stopgap for the first year and I really fell in love with it,” she said
“I have 600 new students right at the beginning of football season every year and I laughingly tell them, ‘You’re going to go to the first football game and you’re going to say, Oh my goodness, there’s a lot of physics in this!’ and by the time the semester’s over I have students coming back and going, ‘You told me I would never look at football the same and I can’t.’ They can see the physics in it all,” Pope said.
“When you hear Dr. Pope talk about her students and her subject, it becomes immediately clear you’re hearing from an enthusiastic and innovative teacher,” said Bridget Trogden, associate dean for Engagement & General Education in Undergraduate Studies who nominated Pope for the AGLS award.
“Physics seems scary to many students, but Dr. Pope is constantly breaking down concepts, making analogies to real-world examples and infusing energy and fun into her courses.”
Pope’s interest in studying physics came from the few weeks she spent at a national laboratory during high school when, as she tells it, she “got to play around with their high-powered equipment” and decided she had to learn more about how things work.
“When you’re first able to see something in action, your interest is piqued,” she said. “If I can connect with something I understand, I’m more likely to take an interest in it and then more likely to follow through with understanding the whys behind it.”
Pope acknowledges many students come to one of her three classes with some trepidation.
“It’s a different language than most of the students normally speak. It’s a language of equations and most future doctors and graphic communications students, they don’t really want to talk in that language,” she said.
Despite this, Pope notes “It’s very interesting to look at the grades in these classes because they start off very poor, and then as the students learn how to think and learn how to process that information, their grades go up and so they end the course on a very positive note and they end up learning a lot.”
Taimi Olsen, director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation, also nominated Pope for the AGLS award.
“She’s participated in many OTEI events as a presenter and shown that she thinks deeply about her teaching. And last year she led the faculty learning community on large lectures after participating in it the year before. She just steps up,” Olsen stated.
“Recognizing the amazing faculty who do the daily work with students is so important,” said Joyce Lucke, executive director of the AGLS. “Ultimately, the work of AGLS, and the people who work in general education programs across the country, comes down to building students up into confident, engaged and insightful adults.”
AGLS will present the award during its annual meeting in September.
A mother of three teenagers and two long-term foster children who’s been married 22 years, Pope is asked about whether she wears her “teaching hat” or “mom hat” when she’s at home with her children. She laughs and says she wears all the hats simultaneously.
“I think one of the successes in teaching all the students at Clemson is wearing the ‘I care about you’ hat and really letting the students know they are valued as a person and for more than just their academic ability. I think that’s one of the keys to developing into a really successful teacher,” she said.
Regarding physics, which brought Pope to Clemson, she stated, “I miss the research a little bit, but quite honestly teaching is my gift and teaching is really what I love. It’s amazing to look out on a sea of 220 faces and see that you’ve got the majority of their attention and most of them are following you and understanding and making those connections. That’s what really excites me: watching that fear diminish, and that knowledge and understanding come into their faces.”
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