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Inspiring Teacher: Jennifer Momsen, associate professor of biological sciences

Jennifer Momsen is happiest watching her students up at a classroom whiteboard, modeling their ideas about biology. That’s where she can watch students thinking, learning and creating. It’s where the journey to becoming a biologist begins. 

Momsen’s energetic and thoughtful approach has helped her become an innovative and respected teacher since arriving at NDSU in 2010. She helps introduce students to biology education research and principles of college STEM teaching in separate fall courses. She also teaches general biology classes in the spring. Momsen was awarded the Peltier Award for teaching innovation in 2018. 

Momsen earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota and her doctorate in ecology and evolution at Rutgers University. She also was a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University.

What is your favorite topic to teach? 

I’m currently teaching a 200-level course that introduces biology students to research. It’s only my second time teaching this course, but it’s been amazing. I really love helping students ask and answer their own research questions, digging into data collection and analysis, and watching students present their findings. Really, what I get to do is watch them generate new knowledge, knowledge no one’s known before now, and that is so cool. 

What is your teaching philosophy?

I like to think that I have high standards for my learners and the scaffolds to get them there. I believe in every one of my students, in their ability to learn and become a biologist. But it’s not an easy road. I’m there to help them move along that road, to build their car or spaceship so that they no longer need my help.

What has been the best moment of your teaching career so far?

A few years after I arrived at NDSU, I received a note from a student who’d taken Biology 151 with me. She wrote that at the time, she’d really hated the course and all the work I’d made her do, especially the modeling. But as she neared graduation and was sitting in a 400-level course, drawing a model, she realized that all that work in general biology had prepared her for that very moment, in that class, where she was excelling. I can’t imagine a better thank you card, and I was chuffed to hear about all that she had learned in general biology and how well she was doing as a senior. That card is pinned to my wall as a reminder that students are learning, although they might not always realize it right away. 

What have you learned from your students? 

My students constantly remind me of just how cool the world is. Usually it comes out of nowhere, a random question asked by a student. Why aren’t there more hominids around today? What’s the oldest living organism on earth? Why don’t animals photosynthesize? I love these questions, the ‘I wonder why’ because it’s what started us all on the road in science.


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