Creative Assignments Lead to Teaching Success

Steve Potter never wanted to be a conventional professor.

Steve Potter
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Steve Potter (middle) works with students in his lab at Georgia Tech.

So he requires students to write Wikipedia articles. He encourages them to dream up their own ideas for extra credit. And he learns every student’s name, even in large lectures.

“The lessons that stick with students over time are the ones that take them outside of their comfort zones,” said Potter, an associate professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering who has taught at Georgia Tech since 2002.

Recently, Potter’s atypical techniques helped earn him the 2013 Teaching Excellence Award, given by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia.

“I tell my students  exactly what they need to do to succeed in my class, meaning that I lay out — in great detail — what it takes to get an A,” he said. “And then I do my best to raise their excitement and motivation to a level that makes all that work seem like fun.”

For example, for his introductory neuroscience course, Potter asks students to select a specific topic in the neuroscience field and become an expert on it by reading research papers and interviewing engineers and scientists working in the field.

Once they’ve done their due diligence, students are asked to create a Wikipedia article about their neuro-related topic to demonstrate understanding and to share what they’ve learned with classmates and the general public. Students are also asked to produce a YouTube video summarizing research results from a study, so they can be understood by the general public.

“One student decided to bring together Kermit the Frog and Stewie from Family Guy to interview a researcher about basal ganglia disorders,” Potter added.

And they read and review books on Amazon that are related to their respective topics. Their peers, similar to a grant application review board, then critique the reviews.

“Dr. Potter is an excellent teacher and his introductory course was my favorite at Tech,” said Devon King, a fourth year biomedical engineering major. “It is a challenging course, but in the ‘I get to do this’ way instead of the ‘I have to do this’ way. I always looked forward to going to his class, and I think other students did too.”

Read on to learn more about Potter and his time at Tech.

Tell us something that others might not know about your job.          
Unlike many courses where the subject matter is well understood, neuroscience is still in its infancy and is dominated by our pretty sketchy understanding of the brain. As a consequence, I never try to convince my students of any “truths” but merely emphasize how even a limited understanding can be useful in treating some disease or disorder of the nervous system.

What is one thing you’ve learned from your students?       
There are many different learning styles. It helps to try a variety of teaching approaches, so each student will have something that works for them.

Would you ever teach a massive open online course (MOOC)? Why or why not?      
It’s a possibility, but the university needs to come up with new compensation models to make this worth my while.

Where is your favorite place to eat lunch?
My office, and I usually eat a peanut butter and honey sandwich. But on those rare occasions when I have a social lunch, I really love the menu of the Coffee Snob in IBB.  

What is the best advice you’ve ever heard?    
Henry Ford once said, “Believe you can, believe you can’t: either way you are right.”

Tell us something about yourself that others might not know.  
I had a very rough childhood from age 8 on, because my parents split up. The adversity required me to cope through optimism. Poverty taught me to really appreciate things and also to be resourceful. For example, I loved to mine the dumpsters for old TVs that could be fixed by just replacing one vacuum tube.