2013 Faculty Awards: Q&A with Molly Fenn

April 29, 2013
By Bill Krueger

The Alumni Association is honoring 21 NC State professors with the 2013 Faculty Awards for their outstanding work in the classroom, in the laboratory and in the field. We talked (via email) with some of the recipients about their work and the keys to being a successful professor.

Today we’re visiting with Molly Fenn, a teaching assistant professor of mathematics in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Fenn is one of seven professors being recognized as Alumni Association Outstanding Teachers.

fenn_smWhat prompted you to become a professor? Teaching has been the clear path for me from a young age. As a young child I had an imaginary class of students I would talk to instead of imaginary friends. The biggest question for me was what level to teach. I admire K-12 school teachers tremendously but eventually learned that doing that job was not for me. Instead, I continued my mathematical studies (another passion of mine) until eventually I realized a faculty position at a college or university would be a great fit.

What are the keys to being a successful teacher/professor? Math can be intimidating to many students, so I think my biggest strengths as a teacher are being approachable, being willing to acknowledge when things are hard, and being willing to show and talk about my mistakes in doing mathematics. Sometimes watching a clear, well thought out lecture can lead students to believe math is not messy, but it is! That’s not to say I don’t plan my classes very carefully, but rather that I’m not afraid to change course, attempt something new or different on the fly, or even let students lead themselves or the whole class down the wrong path. Everyone takes new and often wrong paths all the time, this is how problems get solved. I believe it’s important for students to see and experience this in the classroom.

It’s also very important to me as a teacher that my students are as involved in the learning process as possible. In small classes this mean I often do very little talking but instead plan activities and problems for them to work on during class time. I then act more as their coach than their instructor, helping them when they get stuck and giving them encouragement and confidence when they need it. I’m still learning how to incorporate more of this inquiry or discovery based style of teaching and learning into larger classes.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction as a professor? Seeing the lightbulbs go on. Those moments when students are frustrated and all of a sudden something clicks are amazing to watch and be part of. No matter how hard my day has been, if I can get into a classroom and see this happen, I can’t help but smile and feel great.

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