Spotlight: Caroline McElhenny

IMG_6609Caroline McElhenny, a student at CNU graduated last winter with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics and is currently in the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. McElhenny is currently taking on three completely different roles at CNU, making her a prime candidate for a new segment on the PCSE Blog, The Spotlight. Each month, we will highlight some of the extraordinary accomplishments of students, alumni and faculty within the PCSE department. I had the opportunity to interview Caroline this past week and had a blast!

What exactly are your roles at CNU?

“I am a graduate student, which means that I am still taking physics classes, although they will be focused on education during the summer. I’m also a physics tutor on campus at the Center for Academic Success and a lab assistant teaching two sections of the Physics 105L class.”

What is the most interesting part of your situation?

“With my job as a tutor, it’s always fun to see the students come into tutoring that are in my 105 labs. They’re always surprised to see me in a completely different setting. In one, they view me as their teacher and in the other I’m a peer tutoring them with their homework. It’s an entirely new dynamic and they always tell me how surprising it is that I want to go into teaching rather than taking the more practical route after I finish up my time here at CNU. It’s also neat to see things from the professor’s side. I get to grade papers, make sure that my scholar account is up-to-date, and I get to actually teach material. Since the 105L class doesn’t strictly follow a lecture based class, some of the time I get to teach the students completely new material they haven’t been exposed to yet. I think that is one of the best things I do here at CNU. It’s very fun and rewarding.”

Why is it that you chose teaching over going into research or industry?

“Coming into my freshman year at CNU, I knew that I wanted to get a Masters in Physics because of my love for the subject. I was accepted into the 5 Year Masters in Applied Physics program and it was then that I decided to go to a conference with my advisor and some of my friends in the physics program. The conference was called CUWIP, which stands for Conference for Undergraduate Women In Physics and that’s where my realized my true calling.

At the conference, there was a panel of people that spoke about the types of jobs they went into after receiving their Bachelors in Physics. There was someone on the panel that did patents for a company, another that did research, a high school teacher and someone who did science demos for kids. It was really interesting because everyone in the audience kept asking questions to the other three people on the panel and were super impressed with what they did, but all I wanted to do was talk to the high school teacher. She kept talking about how she gets to inspire students on a daily basis and give them back that curiosity that gets lost throughout the many years of schooling. She spoke about an idealistic, wonderful world where everyone was excited about science and I realized that this is what I wanted to do.”

What were your biggest influences?

Tutoring at CNU was a huge influence, but I didn’t know that at the time. I’ve always wanted to inspire people and I got a sneak peak of what that was like while tutoring. The best part of it for me is seeing the students really understand the material after struggling through it. I tell them that I was once in their shoes, and I think that helps them feel like they aren’t alone in their difficulties and it IS possible to understand and master the subject if you aren’t perfect at it from the start. Like I mentioned earlier, I never truly considered teaching until that conference. I’ve been guided into the direction of research for as long as I can remember, to the point where I didn’t really think teaching was an option. I slowly came to the realization that I was merely doing what was expected of me, and that it was never truly what I was passionate about. So that’s when I began toying with the idea of teaching and spoke to my advisor. Coincidentally, she taught high school before she went back to school to get her Masters and now she’s a professor at CNU who also does research. I think there’s comfort in that, in case I do want to switch my career to do research. She’s definitely influenced me to take the plunge into the MAT program.”

Why high school?

“Everyone asks me the same question! I know that high school students can be a handful, but they are more mentally developed to understand the math and reasoning behind physics. They’re old enough to grasp all of the concepts on a deeper level, which I feel like is much more rewarding than just memorizing the outcomes. Taking on a problem and explaining it through the language of math, to me, is much more interesting than memorization. Although, math is something that a disappointing number of students dislike and I will strive to change their views on it. I would like to work with the inquisitive minds of teenagers because that is where I feel like I would make the most impact, in teaching both math application and physical laws. I feel like someday teaching at a liberal arts college such as CNU would also be really fun, but only time will tell!”


The Spotlight: Caroline McElhenny, March 2016

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