Teacher uses powerlifting to explain physics
When she first began weightlifting on the advice of a co-worker in 2006, College of DuPage physics adjunct faculty member Jennifer Gimmell found it to be a fun activity. The grueling workouts provided a wonderful stress reliever to help balance the mental challenges of studying subatomic particles while working as a graduate student researcher at the collider detector at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia.
Now a member of COD's faculty for more than 10 years and a physics teacher at Benet Academy in Lisle, Gimmell said she is surprised to find that weightlifting holds an unexpected correlation to teaching physics to college and high school students.
"One of the things I like about lifting is that it's very academic," she said. "It is nearly identical to my professional life. Just as in physics, you dissect each element of a lift, focusing on each little thing. Similarly, with teaching, small steps are part of a cumulative process. In both cases, you may not see results for a while, but if you keep moving forward and focusing on your weak areas, you will reach your goal. What's more, lifting requires a proactive approach, which is also the best way to approach teaching and learning."
The sport also provides an additional means to connect with students.
"My students think it's cool," she said. "A lot of students like sports and nearly all sports have a strength training element. If I'm unable to connect with a student, my lifting may open up some common ground and provide an opportunity to connect on a different level."
Gimmell's desire to connect with students and her willingness to take on innovative approaches led to her being chosen as a Supporting Teachers to Encourage the Pursuit of Undergraduate Physics for Women (STEP UP) Ambassador by the American Physical Society. STEP UP Ambassadors are committed to empowering fellow teachers in shifting deep-seated cultural views and to inspiring young women to pursue physics degrees in college.
In 2015, Benet Academy student and U.S. Presidential Scholar Joseph A. Popelka chose her as his most influential teacher. Meanwhile, at COD, she received an Innovation Award from the college's IDEA Center for a "flipped class" teaching method wherein students view video lectures at home and then spend the time in the classroom actively working on lesson assignments.
Just as in her teaching, Gimmell constantly pushes herself to excel in her lifting. She recently was named one of the top 30 female weightlifters in the sport by the World Powerlifting Organization (WPO) and, as a result, competed at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio.
"Competing at the festival was super cool," she said. "It was both an honor and terrifying to compete against people who do this for a living and it's amazing to share the platform with lifters I idolized when I started out more than a decade ago."
The invitation to compete at this year's Arnold Sports Festival is Gimmell's latest milestone in a successful lifting career. She previously set 10 state records and four national records at the 2015 American Powerlifting Federation's Illinois meet and went on to compete nationally, setting three new world records and earning the title of best female lifter.
She said that this year's Arnold Sports Festival provided an opportunity to push herself beyond her limits, a challenge she embraced. She set personal records with her dead lift and bench press, which also set a WPO record. Gimmell also achieved her first competition total lift of more than 1,400 pounds. She said she couldn't be prouder of her performance
"You step up your game when you're surrounded by the best," she said. "You hold yourself to a higher level of rigor in your training."
She added that lifting has provided her with benefits that go beyond physical strength.
"Being strong is very useful for many things in everyday life," she said. "But feeling strong is great. It's very empowering. I love the way I feel when I feel strong."
Learn about the physics program at College of DuPage at www.cod.edu/academics/programs/physics/index.aspx