Utopian literature, health and fitness, and engineering school may not appear to have much in common, but avoid mentioning that to Dr. Olivia Burgess. Now in her second semester as a Nature and Human Values (NHV) Teaching Assistant Professor here at Colorado School of Mines, Dr. Burgess strives to connect her passion for health and love of English to inspire STEM students every day.
Dr. Burgess grew up in the small town of El Campo, Texas, which is just outside of Houston. She completed her undergraduate degree in English at Texas State University and then studied English with a focus in 20th Century Utopian and Dystopian Literature at Texas A&M University for her graduate degrees. While Dr. Burgess taught for a few years at both Texas A&M and the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the NHV teaching position at Mines was a dream come true.
“After moving to Colorado, I looked up universities in this area and thought ‘Colorado School of Mines—that is where I want to work. Period.’” she recalls. Even though there were no openings at the time, Dr. Burgess checked back frequently and put in an application to teach NHV a few months later. Because she loves reading science-based pieces and enjoys working with STEM students, the teaching position was a natural fit.
“The challenge of working with science and technology students really appeals to me,” Dr. Burgess asserts. “Writing is vital to their careers and I love providing them with the opportunity to discuss and think about what they are doing in a different way.” NHV itself focuses on the ethical implications of various pieces of technology and engineering projects and challenges Mines students to communicate clearly both verbally and through their writing.
While she has always loved to read and write (especially about science and technology), Dr. Burgess actually did not discover a love of teaching until a few years into college. Her favorite professor at Texas State recommended that she look into teaching and graduate school during a school trip to Ireland, and then the progression to teaching was more natural than she ever imagined.
“I became a better version of myself when I stepped into a classroom. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Dr. Burgess explains. From facilitating classroom debates to holding one-on-one writing conferences with students, her favorite part of teaching is definitely interacting with the students. She imagines herself as not a lecturer or a traditional teacher sharing knowledge, but as a facilitator giving a voice to everyone in the classroom and promoting student learning.
As Dr. Burgess becomes more familiar with the NHV curriculum and required readings, she hopes to incorporate a few personal touches to her classes using her background in utopian literature. For instance, she currently challenges her NHV sections to consider the ethical dilemmas of Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the consequences of technology raised in Forester’s “The Machine Stops.” Dr. Burgess also includes a class discussion on gender-ethics as they pertain to engineering and hopes to integrate the ethics of care into future lectures.
“NHV is a great opportunity to bring up those kinds of ethical conversations and expand students’ awareness on the career that they are going into,” she contends. Beyond proficient writing skills and increased awareness, Dr. Burgess hopes that her students walk away from the class with a willingness to ask questions and look at the world in a fresh way.
When she is not preparing lectures or grading essays, Dr. Burgess spends her time “training for something.” As a young girl she was inspired by physically strong women who could take care of themselves, and she consequently makes fitness a priority in her life. She also likes to hang out with her dogs and pet bird Mango and serves as the faculty advisor for the CSM Gymnastics Club.
If Dr. Burgess had to give one piece of advice to Mines students, it would be that NHV can be an important and exciting experience with the right frame of mind and an openness to possibilities. “The way that Mines students look at the world is very interesting to me so it’s really fun to take my style of thinking and my brain and put it together with theirs and learn something together.”