Meet Our Ambassador: Jeremy Cummings

Jeremy is a freshman at the University of Alabama majoring in Physics and Mathematics. His dream is to work with the physics of nuclear fusion development because he has always been fascinated by the promise of limitless clean energy and a single fusion reactor could power a country. In order to make headway in this field, he knows that he needs to work towards an understanding of and curiosity about the natural world. He finds value in Packback and became one of our Curiosity Ambassadors in 2016.

When I started on Packback, I was skeptical. The open question concept sounded great for a philosophy class, but as a physics major, it didn’t seem useful. In just a few weeks of class, I have been proven totally wrong. The questions might be inspired by class, but they extend to topics so much broader and, admittedly, more interesting.

Packback has allowed Jeremy to explore his interests beyond the classroom and he seeks to share his experience with others.

What are some of the most interesting things you have learned on Packback?

JC: Surprisingly, some of the most interesting things I’ve learned on Packback have come not from answers to my questions, but from my own research in answering a question. When I saw a question about why visible light is in so narrow and specific a range, I thought I knew the answer–due to the refractory properties of water. A quick search, however, gave me a hint as to the enormous complexity of the true answer. Perhaps refraction indices are a part of the answer, but the true cause is so much deeper and broader than I originally thought. What I thought would be a quick response turned into forty-five minutes of hunting through biology forums, biophysics research and the thoughts of countless others asking the same questions.

There’s no way I would have learned that the emission spectrum of the sun peaks in the center of the visible range or that biological photoreceptors rely on chemical processes that fail under the intense energies of high frequency light, thereby limiting an organism’s vision, in lecture.

How has Packback challenged your critical thinking skills?

JC: I love physics, but sometimes it can be impossible to teach in standard class format. When a course introduces students to so many new and strange topics in such a short time, a disparity often grows between long and challenging lectures and the basic nature of the required work, since students understandably often fail to understand questions beyond the simplest calculations. This gap can deter students from pursuing physics since students can struggle with simple questions while being exposed to the enormous bounds left for them to cover.

I think that Packback helps ameliorate this discrepancy somewhat by engaging students with deep questions across a variety of topics without requiring formal introductions. To a student interested in physics, seeing the inquiries of their classmates can encourage them to study interesting ideas and spark passion about fields that would seem daunting in class. Personally, I feel that these conceptual questions serve to challenge students to think critically far more than the often rote and computational exercises required of them by a traditional course.

How is Packback different than traditional online discussion boards?

JC: In many ways, the benefits of Packback resemble those of traditional online discussion boards; indeed, my professor even compared his Packback participation requirement to time on Reddit. Yet critically, Packback is undeniably advantageous in an academic setting. Firstly, the privacy and structure of Packback is designed to accommodate classes, with the built-in distinction between students and professors. Moreover, the stringent moderation of Packback, which would prove a poor business model in an open forum, reduces the pressure a professor might otherwise have to preside over their classrooms in trivial ways, like keeping students focused. Instead, professors can emphasize the content students are curious about, and can carry on conversations with students–both online and in the classroom–with the topics that engage them.

Traditional forums are inevitably polluted by the small minority who don’t seem to care about what the rest of the participants are discussing, or are too afraid to be genuine in their interests. Packback has no such limitations, as it fosters the innate desire of even the most shy student to explore their own curiosity.

Packback is a way for students to fully engage with the subject matter, as opposed to the far more selective course material. In his role as a Packback Curiosity Ambassador, Jeremy hopes to spread the message that this type of interaction with content is a far better learning methodology than traditional lecture, thereby improving class experience for both professors and students.

About the Packback Curiosity Ambassador Program:

The Packback Curiosity Ambassador program launched in October 2016 for students who loved using Packback in their class and who wanted to help bring the experience to other students. 

They play a key role in helping shape the future of curiosity-driven education by spreading awareness of Packback and the need for a tool that supports critical thought. Their experience is evidence that it is possible to create a dynamic community of student learners and that the depth of students’ curiosity has been long underestimated.

Packback Curiosity Ambassadors share their stories of personal growth and the impact Packback has had on their education with other professors who would otherwise not yet have been familiar with Packback.

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