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Burris honored by UNC Board of Governors for teaching excellence

BOONE—Teaching is one of Jennifer Burris’ passions, and that passion has been recognized by the UNC Board of Governors.

Burris, an associate professor of physics at Appalachian State University and director of the engineering physics graduate program, is one of 17 professors from across the UNC system who will receive a UNC Board of Governors 2015 Award for Teaching Excellence.

View larger imageJennifer Burris, right, is pictured with two of her applied physics students, senior Evyn Lee and junior Jacob Cole. Burris recently was named a 2015 recipient of a UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. The award is presented annually to a professor from each of the UNC system universities. Burris is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. She and her students are pictured in the Biophysics and Optical Science Facility housed in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Burris and Assistant Professor Brooke Hester are the two principal investigators in the facility, which is also used by other faculty researchers, graduate students and undergraduate who work in the facility on a variety of multidisciplinary projects. (Photo by Marie Freeman)

Burris will receive a commemorative bronze medallion and a $12,500 cash prize. The award will be presented by a Board of Governors member during the May graduation ceremony for the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I believe that with enough time and motivation, every student possesses the potential to succeed in his or her physics courses. My job is to facilitate that learning process through effective teaching,” Burris wrote in her philosophy of teaching. “While time is not always something that an individual student can control, motivation is; and the more interesting, stimulating, and accessible that I make my classes, the easier it is for students to motivate themselves.”

Experiences she had as an undergraduate student helped form her approach to teaching in higher education.

“When I was an undergraduate, I often found myself desperate for a support system. I struggled through my freshman and sophomore years with such difficulty that I briefly dropped out of college,” she wrote in materials submitted for the teaching award. “While the responsibility was mine, I believe the lack of individualized faculty attention played a role. I often reflect on that time in my life and endeavor to give students the mentoring they may need to be successful both in and out of the classroom.”

Burris works with students outside the classroom and encourages them to stop by her office anytime for discussions about homework, lecture topics or science news they have seen. “The couch in my office often overflows with students,” she said.

Burris is co-director, with Assistant Professor Brooke Hester, of the Biophysics and Optical Sciences Facility ( in the Department Physics and Astronomy. Their research lab is one of the largest on campus and focuses on interaction with students, with 20 student researchers currently. “In all my classes and in my research lab, I establish an atmosphere supportive of student efforts to ask questions and take risks in order to learn difficult material. Students enjoy the freedom to express themselves, to debate and to inquire. Learning involves hard work and at the same time can be enjoyable.”

Burris earned her Ph.D. and M.S. degree in physics from Colorado State University. She came to Appalachian in 2007, first as an adjunct assistant professor. She became a tenure-track assistant professor in 2010.

During her career at Appalachian, Burris has taught 1,431 students in 51 different regular courses and seven independent study courses, from freshman non-majors to graduate students. She served as a second reader on three honors thesis committees, mentor to 10 students and co-principal investigator in the STEM retention Academy of Sciences Program. She also has mentored 30 students in her research laboratory, procured 19 student summer research stipends, and published with multiple student authors. Her students have received more than 15 research grants from Appalachian’s Office of Student Research and made 59 presentations at local, state and national conferences.

Burris often helps mentor new faculty in her department. Hester wrote, “Before she really knew me, Jennifer spent a great deal of time helping me. She coached me through teaching my first classes ever, she showed me how to write a grant proposal, she helped me learn the computing systems at Appalachian. She lent me her class materials and showed me how to do demonstrations, which are examples of real physical systems for classroom use. For her, there was no benefit to any of these actions, and Jennifer was not directed by any authority figure to help me. Jennifer did these things because she is a natural teacher.”

“I love to teach. Like most teachers, I receive increased satisfaction at the ‘light bulb moment.’ I truly love to observe a student grasp a topic with which he or she has been struggling,” Burris said. “I also gain great pleasure from pushing excellent students to a new level. I believe that knowledge is power. Education empowers individuals, families and communities, and should be accessible to a diverse population. As an effective member of the university, I must provide a high-quality learning experience to my students, aid in maintaining a helpful and constructive working environment and positively affect the community.”