Feb. 8, 2018

Ensuring biological science students reach their potential earns national honour for instructor

Isabelle Barrette-Ng recognized for innovative teaching and educational leadership
University of Calgary's Isabelle Barrette-Ng is one of only 10 people across Canada to receive a 2018 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

Barrette-Ng is one of only 10 people across Canada to receive a 2018 3M National Teaching Fellowship

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

As the daughter of a grade school teacher, it seems inspiring students is in the genes of one of only 10 people across Canada to receive a 2018 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

“I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by really great teachers,” says Isabelle Barrette-Ng, a senior instructor of biological sciences in the Faculty of Science who was honoured Feb. 6. “My mom taught students from kindergarten to Grade 8, and I was sometimes in her class.”

Created by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE), the annual fellowship program recognizes exceptional teachers in post-secondary education. Barrette-Ng has been a pioneer of the latest ways to help students gain the knowledge they need to reach their potential.

“The 3M fellowships recognize innovative teaching as well as educational leadership,” says Leslie Reid, vice-provost (teaching and learning). “I am thrilled to see Isabelle’s work in creating deep learning experiences and growth opportunities for students and colleagues acknowledged by this prestigious recognition.” 

Knowledge is dynamic 

With more than 500 students in her biochemistry, cell biology and genetics classes, Barrette-Ng faced the limitations of traditional teaching methods in large classes, which require students to individually work out problems on their own time after first being taught seemingly unquestionable facts.

The reality is that “knowledge is dynamic — it’s always changing, and we are always adding to it,” says Barrette-Ng, who is also an inductee to the Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Hall of Fame. “We need to start thinking about how can we teach our students to ask questions and judge the reliability of that information, which is how science actually works.”

Challenged by a lack of free web-based simulations, she coded her own Java applets, allowing undergraduates to practice difficult biochemistry techniques online. “It not only helps them better understand these techniques, it also helps them design experiments they can run to see the effects of changing different parameters,” she says. “They can test their ideas as many times as they want and get instant feedback.”

Innovative strategies and programs empower students and colleagues 

Barrette-Ng also introduced “flipped learning” in her large-enrolment courses, which reverses the traditional approach by having students prepare on their own time and at their own pace before each class through applets, podcasts and online quizzes.

“When they come to class, instead of me lecturing, we work together as a team to apply our knowledge to different problems, and gain more knowledge and ask more questions,” she says. “It completely changes the dynamic in the classroom. I was able to reduce the number of students who were getting a D or F in the course — or withdrawing from it — from about 16 per cent to less than two per cent.”

Barrette-Ng worked with colleagues at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning to study this technique and develop the Flipped Learning Interactive Strategies model, which aims to help instructors in all disciplines across campus create their own flipped classrooms. She also received funding in 2016 through the Teaching Scholars Program to develop SAGES (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Advancing Graduate Education in STEM), a new, multi-faceted educational leadership program for graduate students and their faculty mentors.

Barrette-Ng says she has learned much from engaging her students as scientists. “I strongly believe students and teachers are learning partners — it’s a privilege to study biology with them.”

This year’s 2018 3M National Teaching Fellows were announced in Maclean’s magazine and will be officially recognized at an awards ceremony during the June STLHE conference in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  

Barrette-Ng is a featured keynote at the 2018 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Teaching and Learning hosted by the Taylor Institute from May 1-2, 2018. Her presentation will showcase her work in the SAGES Program (SoTL Advancing Graduate Education in STEM).