Owens Fuels Students' Passion for Teaching
By Bruce Gerson
Jessica Owens is teaching students how to teach and helping students to learn.
As coordinator of the Supplemental Instruction and EXCEL program for Carnegie Mellon’s Academic Development Department, Owens recruits and trains undergraduate students to lead review sessions and collaborative learning groups for traditionally difficult courses. This year, 57 student teachers are supporting more than 2,000 students in 30 courses, including introduction to electrical and computer engineering, organic chemistry, concepts of math and fluid mechanics.
Owens recruits only the top students to lead the supplemental sessions. They must have an overall 3.5 grade-point average and must have earned an A in the course they support.
“I work with the best of the best. They know their subject, and they want to give back. They’re passionate about teaching and very motivated,” said Owens, who earned her master’s degree in higher education with an emphasis in teaching from Geneva College, where she was an adjunct professor.
After putting students through an intensive interview process, Owens leads successful candidates in a formal and comprehensive 10-week training program.
“We do a lot of training in learning theory, teaching theory and classroom management. A lot of it is looking at how learning works, how learning is structured and how people progress through different levels of learning,” she said.
Student leaders meet with their respective professors on a weekly basis to help structure their sessions. Owens sits in on the classes to monitor, mentor and provide tips to the student instructors on how to make the sessions more active and collaborative.
“I love what I do because I can meet students at the point of their passion and help give them the tools they need to develop and grow into their future careers.”
“I talk to leaders about what they can do to include all students in the discussion. I teach about 50 collaborative learning techniques, inclusive teaching principles and tactics,” she said.
Owens enjoys working with the students and finds her position rewarding.
“I love what I do because I can meet students at the point of their passion and help give them the tools they need to develop and grow into their future careers,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see them grow and become leaders who impact the people around them.”
Several of her student leaders have earned Fulbright Scholarships to teach abroad and some have gone on to work for Teach for America. Three have earned CMU’s Student Employee of the Year honors and one of her instructors was recognized as the International Outstanding Supplemental Instruction Leader of the Year.
In addition to her commitment to students, Owens is an advocate for staff as a seven-year member and chair of Staff Council this year. She said she was proud of several Staff Council accomplishments during her term, including raising a record $28,159 in monetary donations and 7,298 pounds of food for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. She said she was honored to participate in President Farnam Jahanian’s inauguration ceremony.
"Staff Council is a place where staff can come together and have their voices heard. I love working on ways in which we can help our community.”
Owens also noted Staff Council’s parental leave proposal, which was recently presented to the university’s Total Compensation Committee. It was the first time Staff Council was invited to present before the committee. The proposal, now under review, would provide parental leave for staff following the birth or adoption of a child.
“Staff Council is a great organization. We’re decentralized at CMU, so Staff Council is a place where staff can come together and have their voices heard,” she said. “I love working on ways in which we can help our community.”
Owens is a member of the Carnegie Mellon Women’s Association and has participated in the Tepper School’s Leadership for Emerging Women program and the Eberly Center’s Teaching and Research Institute.
In her spare time, she enjoys literature — she just finished a 35-hour audio biography on Ulysses S. Grant — playing volleyball in the Pittsburgh Sports League, seeing School of Drama performances, taking group fitness classes and traveling. She’s been to England more than a half dozen times and to the Carnegie Mellon Qatar campus twice — once to help advise during the first Staff Council election there and once to conduct training for CMU-Q’s Academic Resource Center.
“I like seeing other parts of the world. Having an open mind to people’s experiences gives me a different perspective on our lives here,” she said.
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