Top of their class

Passion and commitment define the winners of the 3M Teaching Awards.

Within Canadian academia, there is an exclusive club that grows by no more than 10 members annually. While a debate continues among university professors and administrators as to what is the optimum balance between conducting research and teaching students, the 3M Teaching Fellowships have unabashedly recognized the importance, and celebrated the achievement, of great university teaching. Created in 1986 through a partnership between the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education and 3M Canada, the award recognizes faculty members at universities across the country for their exceptional contribution to teaching and learning. “The 3M Fellowships were not conceived to pit research against teaching,” says program coordinator Arshad Ahmad, a Concordia University business professor and a 3M fellow himself. “Instead, the idea was to advocate ways in which student learning could be promoted.”

Since 2006, Maclean’s has proudly been the program’s media sponsor. This year, as the program marks its 25th anniversary, 10 more professors join the 3M Fellows club. We profile them here.

Spend an hour with Olenka Bilash and you won’t be surprised to hear that one Cree community has nicknamed her “Opastosew,” or whirlwind. The child of a working-class Manitoba family of Ukrainian immigrants, Bilash grew up with a front-row seat for processes of language acquisition, change, and loss.

Today, as coordinator of second languages and international education in the U of A’s department of secondary education, she is a globally recognized mentor whose B-SLIM model (Bilash’s Success-Guided Language Instructional Model) for second-language instruction is used from Japan to Cameroon. It’s no coincidence that one Facebook group created by her ex-students is cheekily called “B-SLIM for World Domination.”

Ask her about her teaching mission, and she will dart amongst anecdotes, maxims, and theories at dizzying speed, frequently pausing, if you can call it that, to break down the etymology of items of technical jargon or even of familiar words like “understand.” She’s comfortable with pedagogical theoreticians from L.S. Vygotsky to Howard Gardner; one of her strong intellectual influences is Paulo Freire, the Brazilian anti-colonialist who criticized the teacher-student distinction as authoritarian and urged teachers to view education as the “practice of freedom.” But she remains anchored to a timeless, humanistic faith in the student. “The truth of the matter is, people want to think,” she says. “As teachers, we have to ask how we can create the opportunity to make that happen.”

Bilash has taught educational psychology and theory to aspiring second-language instructors in a myriad of contexts. Over the years, she has trained everybody from English teachers working with the rising middle class in Asia to Albertans outside of the university system helping the children and grand-children of immigrants reclaim their “own” ancestral languages. She has played a particularly celebrated role in the fight to preserve Canada’s threatened Aboriginal tongues. “I’ve always been interested in languages and been privileged to travel and study abroad,” she says. “But then you come home and say, well, hold on: for these languages, this is ‘abroad.’ ”

Colby Cosh

Clare Hasenkampf stands at the front of the classroom, arms aloft, holding a pair of purple and burgundy homemade sock puppets resembling elongated sausage links. Meant to represent chromosomes, Hasenkampf ties and unties the various links, joining them together to form new patterns, as the chromosomes become hybrids of each other. This, explains the biology professor, is meiosis. Speaking in an excited voice that reveals her fascination with the subject, she says: “When meiosis occurs in our bodies, brand-new, never-before-seen-on-the-planet DNA molecules are created. It’s really amazing.” Students can’t help but be mesmerized by her boundless energy.

As an undergrad at Loyola University in her hometown of New Orleans, however, Hasenkampf didn’t immediately click with biology. There was too much memorization and no application. It wasn’t until third year, when she connected with genetics professor Ken Shull and got to work on a project in his lab, that she found her “passion for biology,” which led to her mission “to get students jazzed earlier.”

In her Introductory Biology class, Hasenkampf does exactly that, getting students involved in the research process early, testing hypotheses, and analyzing data. Meanwhile, she has given her third-year genetics students more control over their lab work. In the past, lab technicians did much of the prep work and part of the experiments. Now students have hands-on access, getting four different stocks of drosophila flies and determining the inheritance patterns of the genes they are tracking. Observes Hasenkampf: “You’d be surprised how much more this gives them ownership of the experiment.”

Hasenkampf has also responded to the many undergrads who feel left out of the research process. She came up with the idea of a Centre for Science Engagement through which students can engage in service learning. Students apply classroom knowledge to real-life, community-based initiatives by teaching high school students, tutoring first year biology students, and more. “If you can get students to switch over, to think of themselves as a young professional in their area, there’s a night-and-day difference,” says Hasenkampf. “Then the battle is won.”

Robert Near

It would be an understatement to suggest that Elizabeth Wells is simply another well liked professor. For example, while kicking off a concert to showcase performances by students enrolled in her popular course on the Beatles last April, she began her introduction by announcing: “I’m Dr. Elizabeth Wells.” Before she could get another word out, the room shouted back: “Best professor ever!”

Such praise for Wells, a Toronto native whose mother has been a church soloist for as long as she can remember, stems from one simple philosophy: “that learning occurs between people, not between people and course material.”

To promote the concept, Wells relentlessly engages students inside the classroom and outside by infusing personal stories and anecdotes from her life and career, including a stint in public broadcasting and another as a production stage manager for the Eastman Opera Theatre in Rochester, N.Y. She strives to interact with students one-on-one so that “they really get what I’m saying.” And they do. “Every day, every topic, Elizabeth brings insight, urgency and life into unlikely places within the study of music,” says former student Andrea Warren.

Three years ago, Wells took a unique approach to resolve an ongoing problem. While teaching a first-year foundation course for music majors, precious class time was being spent answering students’ questions about the syllabus and what was expected ofthem on certain assignments. So Wells set up a camera with a colleague and started shooting short videos. Lasting no more than five minutes, she explained each assignment while standing in relevant locations, such as outside the Sackville Tribune Post for a newsrelated project. She didn’t think anybody would really watch them—she was wrong. “People in other classes started watching them, then they wanted me to do more.” Since her acting debut she has added additional videos, including one on plagiarism and another on professionalism. All of which leaves more time in class to study a topic that is music to her ears.

Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze

When Jean Nicolas first joined the faculty of mechanical engineering at the Université de Sherbrooke in 1978, he hadn’t received any formal training in how to teach a university-level class. It doesn’t appear to have hampered him: Nicolas is recognized as one of the best educators in Canada. But he believes it’s a mistake to underestimate the importance of strong teaching and other practical skills, even in research-driven graduate studies. Through an innovative program at Sherbrooke, he’s working to correct that.

Today, many doctoral students won’t stay in academia, he says; they’ll join the wider workforce. “We need to create a doctorate that’s relevant to that,” says Nicolas, who also holds a position at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. After a stint as vice-rector of research at Sherbrooke, when he observed a variety of disciplines, Nicolas ushered ina series of workshops on topics including scientific writing, intellectual property, and yes, teaching skills. Students from a range of disciplines—engineering, medicine, the sciences—take part.

This cross-pollination of ideas is at the base of Nicolas’s teaching philosophy; while training engineers, he’ll bring in outside experts, or deploy techniques that might be more common in a humanities class. “Instead of saying, ‘this is how you do it,’ we’ll collaborate,” he says. Students leave with new skills, and as Nicolas observes, are “inspired to look into different jobs, or directions for their research. It motivates them.” A change in direction led Hugo Douville, 35, to leave the Université de Sherbrooke’s Ph.D. program in 2007 before graduating in order to cofound his own company, Cadens Imaging, in Granby, Que. But the training he received was crucial, says Douville: “It provided a base of all the missing elements.” Other universities in the province are now looking at emulating the program.

Beyond Nicolas’s innovative approach to doctoral training, colleagues and peers praise his boundless enthusiasm and passion for teaching. “It doesn’t matter what he’s teaching,” says Douville. “He never fails to get students hooked on the material.”

Kate Lunau

When Zopito Marini assumed the responsibility of running the Introduction to Child and Youth Studies course at Brock University six years ago—a prerequisite for all first-year students in the department—one topic continually ignited what he calls a “very heated discussion.” The subject was parental licensure: the idea that parents should require a licence in order to raise a child. “The students get so fired up and I knew that we better be on our toes,” says Marini, who has taught at the university since 1985 and was the founding chair of the department.

For some of his teaching assistants, controlling the room while presenting provocative material was a major challenge. So Marini decided to create small workshops to prepare TAs prior to the start of the academic year. He would engage them in role-playing exercises and offer learning techniques to help with the evaluation and feedback process. And Marini addressed his students’ volatile reactions. Using a number of teaching models related to bullying to explain the various dimensions of incivility that students can succumb to when debating controversial and emotionally charged topics, he developed a teaching strategy to induce what he calls civil learning communities in order to foster a safe learning environment in class. Marini has subsequently shared his techniques with colleagues at Brock and other institutions.

Marini incorporates other subtle techniques in his teaching style to keep students focused, including the use of teaching maps that serve as both conceptual and visual organizers to let students see how material fits into the grand scheme of the course. In addition, at certain points in a lecture, he’ll shout out, “stretch time.” “He gets everyone to stand up, stretch their arms up and legs, ‘shake it off,’ and then proceeds,” says Sarah Josse, a fourth-year student who is one of Marini’s TAs. “Many first-year students find this surprising and embarrassing at first, but by the end of the term they remind him of stretch time, and it is clear how this simple action helps students concentrate.”

Engaging students in a supportive teaching environment is all part of Marini’s plan of ensuring that everyone is on their toes, ready for any challenge that they may encounter in life and work.

Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze

When Angela Thompson was on sabbatical last year, she enjoyed the time to write and travel. “But, did I miss being with my students!” she exclaims. “My best friend told me that I’m never allowed to take a sabbatical again because I was way too grumpy.” It’s a safe bet that Thompson’s students missed her, too. Typically they characterize their human kinetics prof as inspiring, enthusiastic and a great role model. Originally from Saskatchewan, Thompson knew once she started at St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, N.S., that she’d found her place: “I absolutely thrive here.”

She keeps classes as interactive and friendly as possible. In her first-year Principles of Human Movement class, she appoints five to six students as “daily experts.” These students have to answer questions or demonstrate learned principles in front of approximately 150 of their peers. “It gives everybody an opportunity to speak,” notes Thompson, thereby reducing the psychological “size” of the class. She regularly departs from her lecture notes and separates students into small groups so they can discuss the topic at hand. Thompson’s friendliness and energy extend outside the classroom. She chats with students at varsity sporting events and her office door is “literally” open. She advises honours theses and writes about 150 reference letters each year.

A strong proponent of nutrition and physical activity, Thompson lives her principles. She regularly runs, practises yoga, eats well and, along with her students, dons a pair of sweat pants and plays sports with them in her service-learning program Fit for Life. Through Fit for Life, Thompson and her student volunteers engage elementary schoolchildren in games and teach them about nutrition. Thompson sees it as a “win-win” experience— “absolutely amazing for the children participants” and a great opportunity for students to work with children. “They get to see that that game idea they had sounded terrific—until they tried to explain it in the gym with 25 little rug rats.”

Robert Near

It takes most people a little time in life to find their passion. Alan Morgan is not one of those people. At the age of eight his fascination with geology began to percolate; by 10, he was taking geology courses in grammar school and visiting the National Museum Wales; then, at 17, he was off to Iceland with the British Schools Exploring Society to trek across glacial water streams and walk on ice sheets.

Morgan has since travelled the globe, and for almost four decades has taught Earth 121, an introductory geology course, at the University of Waterloo, among other offerings, where he shares his tales of adventure and discovery with students. “I’ve seen active volcanoes, I’ve walked through the rubble of earthquakes and major floods, so it’s very easy to bring these real-life stories into lectures” he says. And after all these years of teaching, Morgan can still capture the imagination of his students. “He doesn’t leave you confused about concepts, but brings clarity to them,” says former student Maria Fox. “He incorporates a lot of his photos in PowerPoint presentations, and he has a lot of funny stories regarding this or that geological formation.”

Morgan’s research interests are in quaternary stratigraphy—deposits laid down over the last 2.6 million years—along with climate change. He has given more than 850 public lectures, published some 100 research papers and book chapters, and has led geological excursions in Mexico, the American Southwest, Iceland and Greece. And he’s in no rush to slow down. This year he is working on a unique project in a Waterloo park called the Geo- Time Trail. The trail consists of a path exactly 4.567 km in length, a number that in billions corresponds to the approximate age of our planet. Once completed, illustrated signs, markers and even Morgan himself will take hikers along a geological timeline so they can understand what was happening in the world at a specific period. The project, like his teachings, reflects Morgan’s love for the planet and a belief that the more people know about it, the more inclined they are to respect it.

Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze

Anthony Clarke aims to excite, challenge and provoke his students as he sets out to teach others how to teach. One of his classroom strategies draws on improvisational techniques as he engages students in a game similar to Whose Line Is It Anyway? After the game, students discuss the learning scenario they’ve just witnessed. Clarke also believes that all new teachers must be adept in digital learning technologies. He’s something of a tech pioneer himself: he began teaching computer science back in 1978. Recently, Clarke introduced his students to a form of stopframe animation that allows them to explore issues in a novel, multidisciplinary way.

“It never gets boring for me,” says Clarke, “I never use the same notes.” The Australian transplant “invites chaos and trusts complexity” in his classroom, firmly believing that the “intelligence of the collective is almost always greater than that of the individual.”

Clarke’s innovation has had an effect beyond his classroom. He developed a mentoring practicum to help teachers prepare to supervise and mentor B.Ed. students while on practicums in their classrooms. He initiated the Collaborative Inquiry for Teacher Education program so that during their practicums, B.Ed. students can meet and discuss what they have been experiencing in the field. And Clarke has helped fellow profs at UBC to refine their teaching techniques.

For Clarke, a successful day of teaching is when he completes the 45-minute bike ride home and realizes he hasn’t stopped “thinking about what’s happened in class.”

Robert Near

Uttandaraman “U.T.” Sundararaj, head of the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, didn’t get interested in engineering because he dreamt of massive structures or great industrial enterprises. It happened because he knew the job came with some sweet benefits. “My mother’s brother was a mechanical engineer in the Indian army, and when I was very young he used to come visit us in his Jeep,” recalls the long-time University of Alberta prof, who moved south from Edmonton in August. “This was a time when you’d be lucky to have a scooter. I guess I was his favourite nephew, so he’d have me sit in the car for a drive around the neighbourhood while all the other kids cheered.” Thus was a budding engineer created.

Sundararaj is known for his use of arresting live and video demonstrations in the classroom, an approach one associates more with physicists and mechanical engineers. It is natural that a chemical engineering expert would give students Silly Putty—a sophisticated polymer we all know, though not in its industrial guise as Dow Corning Dilatant Compound 3179. But Sundararaj goes the extra mile, using Lego to demonstrate the behaviour of long-chain molecules and showing footage from his kitchen and backyard to teach the mysteries of fluid mechanics. The principles of emulsion are the same, he points out, whether you’re talking about mayonnaise or oil-sands tailings.

Sundararaj has long been recognized as a teaching star, but recent students who have played pickup basketball with today’s gregarious U.T. might not recognize the more reserved figure he once cut. “I have to admit,” he says, “that when I first started teaching, I did not look at it from a scholarly perspective.” He started researching learning styles and experimenting with new classroom techniques in 2000, after returning to the U of A from a stint in industry and being caught off-guard by a disappointing set of student evaluations. “The students all seem to believe we throw those forms in the garbage,” he says with a warm laugh. “They have no idea how seriously we take them.”

Colby Cosh

Kimberley Brooks, professor of tax law at McGill University, likens what she does to Bruce Springsteen and Muhammad Ali. “It’s all like tax law,” she says with a straight face, gesturing to the posters of the rocker and pugilist on her wall.

Er, what?

“There’s nothing pleasant about the training. It’s hard work. But the payoff is the moment where it all comes together.” To wit: with practice, Ali knocks out Sonny Liston, Springsteen plays Giants Stadium, and Brooks somehow makes Canadian tax law palatable and even exciting for the 60 law students who take her class.

“Very little of what a student learns is actually in the classroom,” says the frenetic Brooks, who practised at the Montreal office of Stikeman Elliott before moving to McGill three years ago. “I acknowledge that. It takes the heat off. I just give them what they need to think outside the classroom.”

Her teaching approach stems from the material. Brooks genuinely loves to talk about a subject that makes everyone else cringe. “I am really into tax law,” she says excitedly. “It’s an endless series of puzzles and it’s your job to solve them.” She left her practice in part to seek out a new challenge—it isn’t obvious, but she used to have a fear of speaking in public—and has since decided that she’ll “teach till I’m dead.”

“It’s like practising law on speed,” she says of teaching. “There’s always an element of teaching and learning when you practise law. It just becomes more explicit when teaching and learning get to the classroom.” Brooks started off a recent class with a discussion about whether celebrity gift bags handed out at the Oscars were taxable (answer: yes, those poor celebs). “You see famous people, but really you should be thinking about taxes,” Brooks said, stabbing the air.

Brooks’s students pick up on her enthusiasm. “She really cares about learning,” says Lexi Pace, a third-year law student. “She really thinks it through. And she’s self-deprecating and funny.”

Martin Patriquin

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education welcomes nominations from colleagues and students for the 2011 awards. For more information go to 3Mteachingfellowships