Penn’s Pre-Health Programs recognize award-winning instructor

Sukalpa Basu is an advisor and physics lecturer for the Pre-Health Post-Baccalaureate Programs.

Penn’s Pre-Health Programs team is made up of dedicated professionals with significant experience in healthcare, science research, and higher education experience. Our courses are led by world-class faculty and leading content experts who are dedicated to preparing students for a successful future in health professions.

Meet Dr. Sukalpa Basu

Sukalpa Basu is an advisor and physics lecturer for the Pre-Health Post-Baccalaureate Programs. She earned her PhD in physics from Temple University, where she conducted research in phase transitions and spin waves in cerium. Before joining the University of Pennsylvania, Sukalpa taught at Valley Forge Military College, where she also served as an academic advisor and Director of Assessment.

In 2022, Sukalpa was awarded Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies Award for Distinguished Teaching in Undergraduate and Post-Baccalaureate Programs as well as a 2022 Excellence in Teaching Award from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) Mid-Atlantic awards program. As an academic, Sukalpa is interested in exploring different pedagogical methods and has been a proponent of active learning in the classroom for her courses. As an academic advisor, she believes that effective communication and proactive mentoring are fundamental to student success. Her awards recognize her long-standing and exemplary commitment to LPS students and continuing education through advocacy, teaching, program development, research, and service.

Learn more about the LPS Distinguished Teaching awards >

Learn more about the 2022 UPCEA awards >

Sukalpa also teaches two physics courses in the Physical and Life Sciences degree concentration of the Penn LPS Online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, a fully online bachelor’s degree program designed for working adults and nontraditional undergraduate students. The Penn LPS Online staff spoke to this dedicated educator to learn more about how she makes science accessible to students of all backgrounds.

Congratulations on your teaching award! What drew you to a career in physics education?

Teaching physics is a passion—I never considered it a profession. It’s kind of hereditary: My mother was a physics teacher, and I grew up tutoring my brother and then tutored high school kids when I was an undergrad, and so on until it snowballed.

But just as much as research is important to move the scientific community forward, I think teaching is important to ensure that we have future generations interested and ready to contribute to the ever-evolving discipline of physics, or science in general. I feel that I fit best in conveying my passion for this subject to future generations and preparing them so that they can apply science not only as majors in the discipline, but in whatever field they are in.

You teach and advise for the Pre-Health Programs, including the Core Studies program, which is designed to help career changers who don’t necessarily have a science background prepare for medical school. How do you make physics accessible for students who are relatively new to science?

Most of the Pre-Health students I see in my classes are mature individuals—and the Core Studies students usually have a good reason for completely shifting gears. They have made their decision after quite some thought, and as a result, they take their coursework very seriously. They know they have to manage their time, they know how to get things done, and they know how to seek help. That makes teaching them very enjoyable on my end.

To be able to convey what I’m trying to teach to non-majors has always been a challenge as well as a source of inspiration for me. I try to put myself in their shoes: why would someone who is not going down a physics track or engineering track need to learn this material? I often try to connect physics to something that the students value or that they can envision using in their intended career path. For example, in one physics course, there is a tough unit on torques and rotation. And one of the pre-dental students came back to me and said, Oh, now I see how I can use torques—we have to use torques in some of the dental procedures we do! Same for electromagnetism: we draw a parallel between electrical circuits and the brain, how the brain functions. It helps me engage the students when we can see the applications of physics concepts in medicine. And having a structured active learning component to the course definitely helps.

What is active learning, in this context?

My courses typically have some pre-lecture work, like reading or watching videos, which students need to do just to wrap their heads around the concepts that will be presented. Once they have seen the material, it’s easier to get the ball rolling. There’s also a warm-up problem which is assigned prior to class, so they can attempt it on their own and see how well they did. They are not expected to master or even be proficient in the material at that point in time, but it gives them confidence that they understand at least a little bit of what’s going on. Once we are done with that, the active learning component provides them an opportunity to build their problem-solving skills through collaboration with peers in a small group setting. During these sessions, they are not going in with a predefined process or method; I require students to write out their unknowns, tell me what laws or principles they’re using, and come up with the formula relevant to the context of the problem. It’s a shock in the beginning for students who may be used to “plug and chug,” find the formula from the formula sheet and then you’re done. But in the process of showing their work, they soon learn to prioritize physics concepts.

Believe it or not, there have been several circumstances where I end up learning a lot through one of these active learning sessions, because a student may have presented a solution in a way that I haven’t thought of before. At the end of class every day, it is so humbling to look around the room and see such beautiful work up on the whiteboard.

Learn more about Dr. Basu’s pedagogy and passion for science in the real world. Read Faculty Spotlight: Sukalpa Basu >