Oct. 18, 2023

Personal reflection brings STEM education beyond formula

UCalgary researchers inspire creative approaches to teaching STEM with the help of a University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grant
The emotions wall in the workshop room.
The 'emotions wall' in the workshop room.

How do you know that your teaching is having an impact? Previous experience and teaching conventions often inform the way you present the material, but how can you feel confident that students relate to your lessons?

Exploring authentic and equitable ways for course instructors to connect with students is the basis for a project that received funding from the University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants program.

A UCalgary team awarded $39,780 asks educators to explore creative ways of teaching topics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to a diverse student audience through their project, A Creative Critical Inquiry into Teaching and Learning: Re-designing for Humility, Compassion and Belonging in STEM.  

“STEM can be very rigid with an expectation to conform to established teaching approaches,” says Dr. Jennifer Adams, PhD, who is the project lead and a professor with both the Faculty of Science and Werklund School of Education.

“Deviations from the conventional approaches to teaching are sometimes seen as only belonging to the arts or the social sciences — this doesn’t need to be the case.”

The teaching and learning grant enables Adams’s team to host a series of faculty discussions where educators can explore STEM education topics in ways that put empathy and compassion in the classroom at the forefront.

“By reflecting on personal identity and the spaces in which they feel privileged and have power and/or are oppressed, course instructors in these sessions can heighten their ability to relate to the student’s learning experience,” says Adams.

Putting principles into practice

The project was born out of discussions in the Equity and Creativity Community of Practice (CoP) where Dr. Mindi Summers, PhD, recounts that a sense of equity among participants was foundational for developing the deep appreciation for trust, understanding and relationships that’s required for creativity.

Also an associate professor (teaching) in the Faculty of Science, it was the lessons learned in the CoP that inspired Summers to develop empathy-based teaching techniques that centre the student experience.

“For undergraduate students who are new to research, they can feel intimidated by the process and sometimes lose their voice once their work enters peer review,” says Summers. “By focusing on the satisfaction and joy gained from problem solving and collaboration, we were able to give students ownership of their discoveries and maintain excitement about the research process.”

Designing self-reflection tools that inspire both educator and students

One of the tools developed by the team prompts educators to use reflection as a catalyst for imagining alternative teaching methods. Questions such as "How does a topic connect to real-world issues and nature?" or "Can I change the learning experience by adjusting the layout of desks?" encourage educators to redefine their role in the student's learning experience.

Postdoctoral scholar Sarah El Halwany and research assistant Sophia Marlow discuss the use of reflective tools as a way to inspire teaching that activates students’ bodies, feelings, and different ways of knowing. Responsible for developing tools for the project, they describe how the reflective process allows educators to put themselves in a more vulnerable space and critically assess how personal positioning, assumptions, and biases toward certain forms of knowledge can be adjusted to differently convey the material.

Marlow tells the story of a mathematics instructor who altered their lesson plan after morning traffic forced them to find a new route to work. In the lesson, they began with the solution to a problem, then asked students to find a creative route to navigate their way there — an approach that improved student engagement and validated taking the risk.

“You’re not going for a bang-on transformation right away,” says Adams. “The purpose of this work is to make incremental changes day by day, reflect on the outcomes, and notice the small forward movements that new approaches can have.

For more information about the project or the CoP, please contact Jennifer Adams at Jennifer.adams1@ucalgary.ca


What is the University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants program

Funded by the Provost's Office, the University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants program is designed to support projects that enhance the student learning experiences through the integration of teaching, learning and research. Additionally, the program supports academic staff looking to develop their own educational leadership capacity.

Explore funding streams in Development and Innovation, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and Educational Leadership and learn more about eligibility and how to apply. Academic staff, staff and students are also encouraged to volunteer as program adjudicators.

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