BY ANTHONY STADNYK
A U of C geology professor puts a $3-million endowment to work
to improve teaching methods. Will her research help reduce
the number of first-years who leave the Faculty of Science?
Before entering university, Michelle Shakenfelder loved science. She was a top student in all her high school science classes. She even worked part time at an optometry clinic to satisfy her after-school scientific passion.
When the time came to register for university, Michelle eagerly chose biology at the University of Calgary, after being offered over $4,200 in scholarships.
Clearly, nobody expected Michelle to leave the Faculty of Science after just one year of study.
“Basically I just didn’t enjoy any of my first-year science courses,” says Ms. Shakenfelder, who has since decided to pursue nursing. Classes were too big, she says. The atmosphere was too competitive and she found it hard to get help.
“I just don’t respond well to that kind of environment.”
Statistics suggest Michelle’s case isn’t an isolated one. In fact the university’s Department of Institutional Analysis calculates that over 18 per cent of first-year science students end up quitting university all together after their first year.
Geology professor Dr. Leslie Reid sees a lot of room for improving the situation. As a lecturer of large first-year geology courses, Dr. Reid is certainly familiar with the struggles of her students in large classes — and the struggles of the faculty who have to teach them.
Even so, Dr. Reid strives to teach science in a way that is both constructive and interesting. Not surprisingly, she is also among the highest-rated science professors at U of C.
“Although it’s an exciting subject, science isn’t always presented in an interesting way,” says Dr. Reid. “But with the load of having to do research, rethinking how to teach a course or trying new learning activities is very challenging for faculty members.”
Thanks to the generosity of two University of Calgary alumni — Tara Brister and Matt Brister, P.Geol. — meeting that challenge has become a lot more accessible for Dr. Reid. She now has the time to experiment with new learning techniques.
The province and the university each matched a donation of $1 million from the Bristers to create the University of Calgary’s first endowed chair in science education. Dr. Reid is the first holder of the chair.
Since accepting the position in September 2007, Dr. Reid has spent most of the first year learning about science education and effective educational practices. With this new knowledge and understanding about teaching and learning, her focus is shifting towards applying education theory in first-year geology classes.
-photo by Rob Taerum
IN MOTHER NATURE’S CLASSROOM
“My goal,” says Dr. Reid, “is to become an expert in science education, apply that expertise to my classroom practice and communicate the results to my colleagues and to the scientific community. There is so much research still to be done on science education. This is a dream job because I have always enjoyed teaching and working with students and now my field area is my classroom — I get to experiment and evaluate different teaching practices.”
So far, Dr. Reid’s field experiments give rise to some cautious optimism.
With support of the teaching and learning funds from the U of C Provost’s Office, Dr. Reid and her colleagues have started to experiment with new teaching methods and materials in first year. For example, in the past semester, students who took introductory geology were given 3D computer models to help them visualize the relationship between strike and dip. Visualizing strike and dip has long been a problem for first-year students because they usually haven’t developed their ability to think in three dimensions.
Although the whole result of working with these computer models is still under analysis, they do show promise, particularly when complemented by associated peer learning activities.
Dr. Reid has also been creating opportunities for geoscience faculty to meet and discuss topics in teaching. Every month, she hosts a brown-bag discussion group on a topic of science education selected by her colleagues.
Her advice for future teachers?
“Basically, I’ve found through my own experience that taking a student-centered teaching approach improves the quality of the educational experience,” she says. “Of course, it’s still the student’s responsibility to learn, but I see it as my responsibility to set up a course so learning can be maximized. It’s easy to make assumptions about what students are thinking, taking in and learning in your class.
“I have realized it is important not to make those assumptions and feel frustrated when it seems like students aren’t learning the material or aren’t motivated.
Now I ask myself ‘why is that’ and ‘what can I learn from that as a teacher.’ ”