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5 Minutes with Sara Jensen

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Department: Mathematics
Title: Assistant Professor
Best Office Artifact: Women of STEM wall

Mathematics professor Sara Jensen uses unique teaching methods to prove to her students that math can be fun. As a 2008 Carthage graduate, Prof. Jensen has a special connection and understanding with her students and says she can’t imagine teaching anywhere else.

Prof. Jensen received her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison before returning to Carthage. She brings a large amount of enthusiasm, passion, and creativity to the classroom each day. Her activities and lessons have students moving around the classroom, knitting, and solving intense puzzles, proving to them that math is far from boring.  

We asked Prof. Jensen about her teaching philosophies, hobbies outside of the classroom, and unique experience as a student-turned-professor. 

Q: How did you become interested in Mathematics? 
A: “For a long time, I wasn’t particularly interested in mathematics, but that all changed when I took my first calculus course. For me, that was the first time mathematics felt like critical thinking and problem solving, all of which could be checked in an algorithmic manner. What I needed in order to move from indifference about mathematics to liking mathematics was the ability to create it myself.” 

Q: As a Carthage graduate, how does it feel to be on the other side of things as a professor? Any surprising realizations or experiences?   
A: “It has the feeling of a dream sometimes, where you are in a familiar space but things are different than how you remember them. As I was graduating from Carthage, Charlotte Chell and I were pondering what my career path might look like, as I was going to the same place for graduate school that she did. We joked about how similar we were, and her last words to me during this conversation were, “Now you go get that Ph.D. so you can come back here and take my job”. We both laughed, but it dawned on me recently that this may be exactly what happened.”

Q: What was your journey to becoming a professor at Carthage like? Why did you choose to return to Carthage?   
A: “After graduating from Carthage I went straight to a Ph.D. Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When I finished my time there, I saw that Carthage had a job opening for an applied mathematician, which is almost completely the opposite of my field (algebra). I took the risk and applied anyway; Carthage is a perfect place for me and I couldn’t imagine a better undergraduate program than the one I was so grateful for. It turns out that after posting the job for an applied mathematician, Carthage’s algebraist had found another position, and I didn’t look so crazy after all for applying for a job I was totally unqualified for. The rest, as they say, is history.” 

Q: Students often talk about your creativity in the classroom. What do you hope students take away from courses like The Mathematics of Knitting for example? How do these courses reflect your teaching style?  
A:  “One of the things that bother me most about the stereotypical view of mathematics is the idea that math is boring. Even when people argue that a mathematics course should teach you how to read the newspaper or do your taxes (great life skills!), I feel like what’s missing is the idea that math can be fun! It can be different! It can be found in places you’d never expect! This is one of the greatest lessons I hope people take away from my classes. In terms of my teaching style, I really want to get people involved; math is no spectator sport. If you’re not playing, you’re not learning.” 

Q: How have you pushed students beyond their comfort zones? 
A: “How have I not? Small things I do to push students outside their comfort zones include working with all different members of the course, writing on the board even if they don’t want to, and speaking out even if they think they are wrong (“Strong and wrong!” is a motto in many of my courses). To the other extreme, I’ve made students physically move around the room tied together with yarn, participate in a dramatic reading murder mystery event, play with Disney princess dolls (repeatedly), throw a lot of things in boxes, and literally solve puzzles to break free of a locked classroom.” 

Q: What are some hobbies or interests you have that may be surprising to students?
A: “My more well-known hobbies or interests include knitting, exercising, reading, and consuming excessive amounts of coffee. My less well-known hobbies I have/had include singing, drawing, playing the Oboe, and dancing.

Q: Any favorite moments or memories from your time at Carthage, as a student or as a professor?
One of my favorite memories as a Carthage faculty member is participating in the Tough Mudder. As a student, I went to the Galapagos islands with professors Matt Zorn and Jeff Roberg, and it was the TIME OF MY LIFE. I had also just started dating my husband before that trip, and Jeff kept threatening to marry us on the boat. Looks like we showed him!” 

Q: What advice do you have for new or prospective students interested in Mathematics? Anything you wish you would have known as an undergrad? 
A: “To those interested in Mathematics: Welcome! I’m fairly certain you can do almost ANYTHING with this degree, so you’re making a great choice. And don’t believe for a minute that a mathematician needs to be a certain way. After all, the mathematical community found a place for someone as ‘creative’ as me.”

— Interview by Madeline Paakkonen ’21, Photos by Jenna Link ’22

  • Quick Facts

    • Carthage is named a Best Midwestern College by The Princeton Review (2020), a designation given to only 25 percent of four-year schools.

    • The Tower, Carthage’s newest residence hall, provides some of the best views on campus — if not in the Midwest! In addition to #carthageviews of the lake from seven stories up, residents enjoy suite-style living and two floors of shared campus spaces for gaming, cooking, group meetings, or quiet studying. Learn more about all housing options.

    • You’re going to need brain fuel. Grab a morning coffee and a snack and Starbucks or Einstein Bros. Bagels. Later, meet friends at “The Caf,” where the specials change daily but the staples are constant, or swing through “The Stu” for wings, a burrito, or a sub. A new option, Carthage Cash, even covers some off-campus meals.

    • More than 90% of Carthage alumni report that they have secured a job or are continuing their studies six months after graduation. Visit Career Services.

    • 91% of employers say critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills matter more than your major when it comes to career success. Learn more about how the liberal arts prepare you for a successful career.

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    • Oscars. Emmys. Tonys. Golden Globes. The playwrights we’ve brought in have them. Each year, the Carthage Theatre Department commissions an original script by a renowned playwright for its New Play Initiative. Carthage students then work with the writer to stage it. 

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    • Things look new at Carthage because they are. Our science center, student union, athletic and recreation center, and numerous residence halls have all been constructed or newly renovated in the last 15 years.

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    • Our Summer Undergraduate Research Experience offers select students a research budget, one-on-one mentoring with a professor, and 10 weeks of analyzing, deciphering — and getting paid.

    • So the lake is kind of a focal point, but there’s a lot more to love about our campus — like the fact that our more than 80-acre campus is also an arboretum and wildlife sanctuary. Focused on keeping campus lush forever, we plant between 50 and 75 new trees every year from a variety of species.

    • Carthage was founded in 1847. That’s more than 170 years of leaders, makers, and go-getters going out and going forth. Read more about Carthage’s rich history.

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    • Abraham Lincoln was an early Trustee of the College, and U.S. Secretary of State John Hay was a Carthage alum. The two still have a proud place on our campus. Spend some time with them in our Sesquicentennial Plaza. On warm days you’ll find professors leading their classes here.

    • Come to Carthage; hear yourself think — think … think …
      Legend has it that Sesquicentennial Plaza holds a perfect echo. Just stand with both your feet on the “1847,” face Straz, and start talking. “You’re the only one who can hear you, but you’ll be crystal clear,” promises English and theatre alumna Mikaley Osley.

    • Our Great Lake provides Carthage students with some amazing views. Think classes on the beach, lake views from the lab, and sunrises from your dorm room. “I love waking up in the morning with the sun shining off the lake. Nothing compares to the view in the morning,” recalls biology and neuroscience major Ann O’Leary.

    • Carthage awards up to 35 Presidential Scholarships each year, which range from $20,000 up to full tuition. Learn more.

    • For a full decade, NASA has selected Carthage students to conduct research aboard its zero-gravity aircraft. Lately, the stakes have risen. A team of underclassmen is grinding to prepare a tiny but powerful Earth-imaging satellite for launch to the International Space Station. Learn more about the space sciences at Carthage

    • Carthage is the only college or university in the Midwest where every freshman takes a full-year sequence of foundational texts of the Western intellectual tradition. Learn about the Carthage core.

    • With a student-faculty ratio of 12:1, your professors will know who you are. They will also know who you want to be — and how to get you there. Meet our faculty.

    • There are more than 130 student organizations on campus, from Amnesty International to Fencing to Frisbee, Chem Club to Stand Up Comedy. See how easy it is to get involved.

    • True story: There are more than 27 art galleries, a dozen museums, and nine theatres within 25 miles of Carthage. Some highlights: The nationally recognized Racine Art Museum, the world-renowned Art Institute of Chicago, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Learn more about our location.

    • What’s better than one professor? Two professors. What’s better than two professors? Two professors from totally different fields teaching a single class. There’s debate. Discussion. Differing perspectives. This is where the magic happens. That’s why every student takes a Carthage Symposium.

    • You can’t hide here — not with only 17 other students in the classroom with you. That’s going to be rough some mornings. But later, when you’re able to argue your point of view thoughtfully, express your opinions succinctly, and meet challenges head-on, without fear … Yep, you’ll thank us.

    • Carthage is ranked No. 3 in the country for student participation in short-term study abroad. Every J-Term, hundreds of students travel all over the world on faculty-led study tours. Imagine a month in Sweden, Rome, Cuba, Senegal, India, Japan …

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