Susan Gentry: Materials Educator

uc davis materials science engineering assistant professor teaching susan gentry
Assistant Professor of Teaching Materials Science and Engineering Susan Gentry explains a concept to her students in one of her undergraduate courses. Photo: Noah Pflueger-Peters/UC Davis.

Since joining the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) in 2015, Susan Gentry has made waves in the College of Engineering through her assistant professor of teaching materials science and engineering position. She has overseen MSE curriculum development and education research, all while cementing herself in the department and forming relationships with her colleagues and the students she teaches each quarter.

Gentry always enjoyed interacting with students as a TA in graduate school at the University of Michigan, but found a passion for teaching while doing her postdoctoral work. “I realized I would much rather spend my time working on helping the students,” she said. “I enjoy answering their questions and trying to think of how we can better support them.”

To do this, she designs and tests new learning activities to improve the quality of the education in MSE courses and better understand the needs and challenges of the students she teaches. One of the ways she thinks she can do that is by integrating computing into MSE education. She argues that computer-based learning not only allows students to better visualize phenomenon in materials science and engineering, such as how atoms move and interact in materials, but also helps them build computing skills, such as working with MATLAB, that will help them in their post-academic careers.

An Active Member of the Department

Gentry was drawn to UC Davis because she saw an opportunity to be involved in the department. She feels like she is truly needed, appreciated and supported, backed up by a spirit of collegiality with her fellow faculty members. “I like that I’m not the only education person in the department,” she says. “Yes, I’m the only one who researches education full time, but my colleagues are also interested in improving their teaching.”

As an assistant professor of teaching, she teaches a variety of courses in the department, ranging from the introductory course to a couple different lab classes to a graduate course on thermodynamics to a freshman seminar on the history and design of bicycles.

With this, she often gets to teach the same students over multiple quarters, watch their development and get to know them personally. She makes a point to visit her students in lab to build relationships with them instead of being just their lecturer for the quarter.

This is reflected by a handmade thank you card, proudly displayed in her office and signed with messages like, “thank you for putting up with us” from a group of students she taught three times in 2017-18. “I think our students are fun and I want them to do well,” she said.

Award-Winning Educator

Gentry has been increasingly recognized for her work. She has already received two awards in 2019, the New Educator Award from the ASEE Materials Division and the Bradley Stoughton Award for Young Teachers from ASM International, both recognizing her excellence in materials science and engineering education. She also previously received the Best Paper Award from the ASEE Materials Division in 2018 and was named Instructor of the Year by the UC Davis Materials Advantage Student Chapter (MASC).

Though she has now been recognized nationally, her priority remains getting to know MSE students and help them succeed both at UC Davis and in their careers. “I really enjoy the student interaction that I get,” she said. “I try to make time for it, even when things get busy.”

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