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Faculty Spotlight: Marianne Breinig

From physics to her own academic philosophy, Dr. Marianne Breinig has always been curious about the ever-evolving interactions and relationships of the world. She began her academic career in Frankfurt, Germany, where she excelled in physics and math, and shortly after obtained her doctoral degree from the University of Oregon, where she focused her research on atomic inner-shell processes using synchrotron radiation. Breinig followed those passions to the University of Tennessee, where she accepted a postdoctoral position, and has worked here ever since. 

After advancing through the ranks, Dr. Breinig is currently a full professor and Associate Department Head in the Department of Physics & Astronomy here at UT. A firm believer that each student has the right to be given an opportunity from day one, she structures her syllabus and classroom environment to have clearly defined goals and objectives. By setting her students up for success early, they have an overwhelming advantage, which allows them to focus on the course material and make real progress towards their in-class goals. 

One of Dr. Breinig’s learned strengths from her evolving teaching practice is her ability to notice when students are having difficulty learning, and adjusting her approach to teaching in order to better support their needs. In years past, Breinig took a more traditional lecturer based approach to teaching. She prepared notes prior to class for her students, and then had them fill out the information by themselves throughout her lectures. Realizing that not every student learns effectively that way, Dr. Breinig implemented an asynchronous classroom environment with hands-on labs. This move has sparked several other changes. For example, she now has her upper-level undergraduate students partner with faculty advisors to complete a summer research project. These projects have often been published upon their completion, and the experience has taught students to expand their knowledge and experience beyond the classroom while also providing them with real-world experiences. Learning to adapt her own teaching philosophies inside of the classroom to meet the needs of her students has provided great perspective and enhanced learning for everyone involved.

Dr. Breinig is not only adapting her own courses to the needs of today’s students, but the entire department of Physics & Astronomy as well. For example, another opportunity that Dr. Breinig has developed for her students is a graduate self-study course that attempts to find each individual’s weakest area(s) of physics, and then concentrates on helping each student excel in those areas throughout the course. The process allows students to see where they may be confused and gives them time with instructors to work through those road blocks. Evidence has shown that the students who have participated in this process in the past have enhanced and grown their academic skill set through that opportunity.

Dr. Breinig attributes her teaching style, and constant attention to changing academic learning trends, to what she has learned from her peers. In particular, Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus (professor of physics at MIT) has been a great influence, and has encouraged Dr. Breinig to continue incorporating new approaches to teaching into her regular practice. As part of her approach to teaching, Dr. Brenig has seen the importance of supporting students to engage with one another on a deeper level. By supporting these deeper connections, she’s seen her students gain more from what they learn, and become even more excited in the classroom. 

When asked about the future of teaching and learning, Dr. Breinig believes that as society changes, so should education. She says,

“The students entering college today approach learning differently than those entering only 5 years earlier. As faculty in higher education, we have to keep up. We should embrace changes that make learning more enjoyable for many students and that let students learn and solve problems in different ways. Online education is one aspect of this. We also must recognize their previous educational experiences and the many stresses our students are experiencing often make it hard for students to develop critical thinking skills, which are a main goal of a college education.”

When students feel heard and accepted, they tend to set higher goals and expectations for themselves in the future. As a university, we can rest assured that they will succeed in their future endeavors thanks to faculty members like Dr. Breinig.