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2012 Excellence in Teaching award recipient Natalia Kouzniak: Triumphing over “not good enough”

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

This post is reprinted from the SFU News blog. Read the original post here.

Natalia Kouzniak, 2012 Excellence in Teaching award recipient

With mid-terms over, Natalia Kouzniak is again holding “crying sessions” in her office with students taking first- and second-year calculus courses who complain that they can’t do math.

“I spend 15-20 hours a week in my office explaining to students why math is useful, how to study it, what was insufficient in their studying,” says the SFU Surrey senior math lecturer.

“My teaching philosophy and goal is to help students unlock their potential – to get students who say ‘I’m not good enough at math’ to become good enough.”

Her students would agree the 2012 SFU Excellence in Teaching award winner meets that goal.

They are effusive in their praise of her teaching and encouragement, often noting high grades in courses such as calculus and differential equations they struggled with or failed in the past.

“First-year math requires perseverance and good teaching,” she says. “I’m a very strict instructor, but I always give students a second chance.”

Kouzniak takes her passion for math far beyond the classroom. She coordinates work at the Surrey campus Mathematics Open Lab drop-in centre for first- and second-year math students and participates in a number of outreach activities.

She organizes a popular math camp each summer as well, and helped found a Surrey math meet-and-greet for high school students to visit first-year math classes on campus.

She also visits local high schools to promote math at SFU and discuss the transition to university.

“Natalia believes in her students, which makes them believe in themselves,” says a nominator. “Her dedication and commitment to her students is phenomenal.”

2012 Excellence in Teaching award recipient Carl Schwarz: A passion for students – and stats

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

This post is reprinted from the SFU News blog. Read the original post here.

Carl Schwarz, Teaching Excellence award recipient

Carl Schwarz shows up for class year-round in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts.

The relaxed dress code suits the popular statistics professor, who spends much of his time examining peculiar problems and using numbers to explain them.

But it belies his passion for convincing students that statistics are interesting, even exciting – a goal that is central to Schwarz’s teaching philosophy.

And his enthusiasm for that goal, combined with his devotion to involving students in real-life research, helped earn him a 2012 SFU Excellence in Teaching award.

Teaching is not about standing in front of the class and lecturing, says Schwarz; it’s about introducing students to realistic problems.

“Some students say my assignments are long and hard, but students have to get their hands dirty,” he says, adding long hours of study and practice are the only route to success.

Schwarz’s office door is open most weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm, and students know they are always welcome.

“If the same student comes to my office very day, it doesn’t bother me,” he says. “It shows they’re interested in the material.”

What frustrates him are the students who don’t come for help until the end of the semester, when it’s too late.

Over the past 10 years, Schwarz has been posting his course notes online to allay his irritation over the lack of texts covering the topics he wants to study and teach.

The site is a boon to students in many disciplines who use the information to study, create and model experiments, solve problems, and prepare journal articles.

“Schwarz does what many instructors are never able to do,” says a nominator. “He transforms knowledge and inspires students.”

Make it personal: Observations from a Faculty of Science teaching circle

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Glyn Williams-Jones

On October 15, Glyn Williams-Jones from Earth Sciences delivered an engaging lecture on mass wasting to a class of EASC 101 students. What made the event noteworthy was the presence of four attentive colleagues among the students. The faculty members were there as part of a teaching circle to observe Williams-Jones’s use of photos and personal stories to capture the attention of the class. After the lecture, Williams-Jones and his colleagues met to consider the theme of “diverse audiences: teaching to breadth and majors.” Below are some key points that arose from the observation and the lively discussion that followed.

  • Relate to what students care about and already know. One of the most impressive things we noticed was Glyn’s use of real-world examples that students could easily relate to. He showed photos of the 1965 Hope mudslide and the 2008 Sea to Sky highway rockslide to illustrate the factors that cause mass wasting.
  • Make it personal. It is no secret that students love stories, especially when they are personal. Glyn shared experiences from his post-doc years in Hawaii and observations from an outing with his kids a weekend before to make his points.
  • The textbook is a resource. One participant, Diana Bedoya from Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology, recalled that she once asked an undergraduate student what makes a good lecture. The student replied that he liked professors who could give him something he couldn’t get from the textbook. To which Glyn responded, “To me the textbook is a resource. It is never your spin.” Glyn emphasized the importance of adding value by giving students one’s own interpretation and providing them with the big picture. This often involves combining materials from multiple sources: other texts, personal experiences, and one’s own research.
  • Teach students how to take an exam. Glyn spent the first five minutes of the class going over basic exam-taking techniques in anticipation of the mid-term. More and more we hear instructors lament that their students don’t know how to take exams — that they don’t read questions carefully or that they get bogged down by one question and leave no time for other questions. This complaint reflects a more general issue: students’ lack of self-reflection about their learning and the strategies they use. Instructors who take the time to coach their students on these meta-cognitive skills will help them go a long way.
  • Images and photos are effective. Glyn’s lecture revolved around photos and images that he gathered from various sources. Each image spoke meaningfully to a concept or a set of concepts he was teaching. Together they were succinct and powerful.
  • Work with diverse students. EASC 101 is a breadth course. Glyn’s class has students from both science and non-science Faculties. He sees clear differences in the ways the two groups of students think and write. He intentionally coaches students to think and write in new ways.
  • Practice makes perfect. The lecture was very well paced: a substantial but not excessive amount of content was covered, and it started and ended right on the dot. We asked Glyn how he managed this feat. He replied, “I know how many slides I can reasonably get through in a 50-minute lecture. Having taught the class many times before helps, and I watch the clock closely.”

For the next Science teaching circle on October 31, participants will attend Cindy Hansen’s lab of EASC 101 Physical Geology. For information, see www.sfu.ca/tlc/programming/scienceteachingcircles.html. To register, please email Erin Barley (ebarley@sfu.ca). Note that space is limited.

Related links:

Faculty of Science Teaching Circles web page >>

Glyn Williams-Jones’s profile page >>

Cindy Xin’s profile page >>

Posted by Cindy Xin, Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) educational consultant

Broadening the discussion in a science classroom

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Michael Silverman

This semester, Michael Silverman (above) will teach a course in cell biology and biochemistry to more than 200 second-year students. But before he delves into questions like the effect of gene mutations on proteins, he will ask – in fact, require – his students to read an article titled “What is education for?” by David Orr.

“I want to encourage people to think about why they’re here,” he says. Silverman, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has observed that many students display an overly narrow focus on grades and job prospects. The reading assignment is an attempt to encourage them to “think more broadly.”

And although it might seem like an unusual way to begin a science course, Silverman thinks some of the key themes in the article – for example, about the interconnectedness of all things and the need to consider the bigger picture – echo the observations that he hopes his students will make as they examine complex biological systems.

“One of the things I want to accomplish in my classes is to have them make the connection to the larger world,” he says.

Silverman is candid about the response the article gets: “If anything, the students think it’s weird.” But he has been sharing it for a number of years and plans to continue.

“I do have the ideal that we should be educating the whole person and taking the opportunity to be a bit more contemplative,” he says. “I feel that’s part of my university duty.”

What do you think?

Read the article for yourself and tell us whether you agree with the author’s vision for education. If you are an instructor, consider sharing it – and your thoughts about it – with your students.

Related links:

David Orr article: What is education for? Six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them >>

Michael Silverman’s profile page >>

Video: Lynne Quarmby takes a broad view of teaching

Friday, June 8th, 2012

In the video post above, Lynne Quarmby expresses a realistic view of the teaching challenge she faces as a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry: “Many students come into the class pretty disengaged. It’s a requirement, they need the credits … but they come in expecting that it’s going to be boring, difficult, painful.”

That assessment could lead to discouragement, but in Quarmby’s case it has served as a motivation for exceptional work as an instructor and, earlier this year, to a 2011 SFU Excellence in Teaching Award. In the video interview, she talks about the wider perspective that gives purpose to her teaching.

“Although I teach cell biology, I consider that I’m actually teaching a group of citizens,” she says. “So these people may go on to become lawyers or bankers or journalists or all sorts of things, and a very few of them will become scientists. But all of them, I hope, will leave my class with a deeper understanding of science and how science is done and what scientific knowledge is really about.”

In the video Quarmby also discusses what leads to memorable learning experiences and what excites her as an instructor.

Watch this video on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Xy7yWFyMft0

Visit Lynne Quarmby’s faculty profile page: www.sfu.ca/mbb/People/Quarmby/

SFU mathematics instructors will have prominent roles at CMS summer meeting

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Two senior lecturers in SFU’s Department of Mathematics will deliver prize lectures at the summer meeting of the Canadian Mathematical Society in Regina, Saskatchewan, in June.

Veselin Jungic on blended learning

Veselin JungicThe first is Veselin Jungic, who will receive the society’s 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award for “sustained and distinguished contributions in mathematics teaching at the undergraduate level at a Canadian post-secondary education institution.”

Besides being deputy director of the Interdisciplinary Research in the Mathematical and Computational Sciences Centre (IRMACS), Jungic teaches a number of courses, including introductory calculus courses with more than 500 students. He also conducts research on methods and techniques for teaching large classes and has written research papers on the subject. He frequently incorporates online assignments and pioneered the use of Lon-CAPA, an online course management system, for mathematics courses at SFU.

Jungic was instrumental in the development of many of SFU’s outreach programs, including the “A Taste of Pi” program, which features enrichment activities for high school students, and the Math Student Ambassador Program, which connects SFU student volunteers with high schools to speak to students about pursuing university mathematics. In addition to his work with university and high school students, Veselin regularly teaches basic courses in mathematics to adult learners, including students in the SFU Liberal and Business Studies program and First Nations individuals who did not complete secondary education.

Jungic will deliver a prize lecture on “The Blended Learning Approach to Teaching a Calculus Class: What May Change and What Should Stay the Same.” His presentation will examine some general facts about blended learning – which he suggests can be described as an integration of “seemingly opposite approaches, such as formal and informal learning, face-to-face and online experiences, directed paths and reliance on self-direction” – and will analyze the use of the approach for various university-level science classes. Finally, he will discuss an ongoing attempt to introduce the blended learning approach to teaching calculus classes at SFU.

Malgorzata Dubiel on teaching the teachers

Malgorzata DubielThe second senior lecturer is Malgorzata Dubiel, who in December received the society’s 2011 Adrien Pouliot Award for “individuals or teams of individuals who have made significant and sustained contributions to mathematics education in Canada.”

Dubiel will deliver a prize lecture on “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers: The Most Important Course You Can Teach?” In her abstract, Dubiel notes that the presentation will consider the evolution of SFU’s MATH 190 Mathematics for Elementary Teachers course, “its influence on similar courses at other B.C. institutions, and its influence on our enrichment programs.” Given that many students aiming for careers as elementary school teachers lack confidence in their ability to teach math and often dislike the subject, and given research findings that suggest people form lasting attitudes towards math by the end of grade 5, Dubiel asks, “Shouldn’t we be investing more into educating those who have a crucial role in introducing the next generation to mathematics?”

Learn more about Veselin Jungic and Malgorzata Dubiel:

Veselin Jungic’s faculty profile page: www.math.sfu.ca/people/staff/faculty/veselin_jungic

Veselin Jungic’s personal website: people.math.sfu.ca/~vjungic/

Malgorzata Dubiel’s faculty profile page: www.math.sfu.ca/people/staff/faculty/Malgorzata_dubiel

Lynne Quarmby

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Lynne Quarmby

The bio page of Lynne Quarmby’s blog says “she’s got a bit of a passion for teaching.” If you follow the explanatory link after that statement, you come to a poem entitled “Course work,” by A. R. Ammons. It goes like this:

Ideas go
through most
heads without

picking up

any substance
or leaving
any trace

Quarmby, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, quotes it because she “thinks that A. R. Ammons got it mostly right about how our system of education works.” And because she’s not content with that state of affairs, she has made a point of trying to change it in her own classes by cultivating “a classroom culture where even the shy find themselves comfortably engaging in the conversation.”

Her efforts have made a deep impact on her students, who frequently describe her as inspiring. They have also drawn the attention of the wider SFU community: in February she was one of three faculty members to receive a 2011 Excellence in Teaching Award. That’s an impressive achievement for someone who is also known as a dedicated researcher. But Quarmby sees her teaching and research activities as complementary.

“Research breathes life into my teaching,” she explained in an interview with the SFU News. “Not only can I share my excitement and stories from the front lines, but also a sense of the amount of work required to make a discovery that becomes a single paragraph in a textbook.”

Learn more about Quarmby and her passion for teaching by following the links below:

Faculty profile page: www.sfu.ca/mbb/People/Quarmby/

SFU News: 2011 Teaching Excellence Awards.

Natalia Kouzniak and her students prove that the visually-impaired can excel in calculus

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

When Natalia Kouzniak discovered she would have two visually-impaired students in two of her classes, her first reaction was one of fear. Dr. Kouzniak, a senior mathematics lecturer, says, “Calculus requires a lot of visual material – students have to understand and apply the concepts, rather than just practice them.”

To help fellow instructors who are working with students with disabilities, she’s happy to discuss the challenges she faced.

Kouzniak soon learned how dedicated, innovative, and highly intelligent the students were. Angell Lu-Lebel and Brendan Gaulin, both second-year kinesiology students, are highly accomplished and hope to pursue graduate work to become physiotherapists. They are also visually-impaired. Lu-Lebel has been blind since birth and Gaulin is legally blind.

Senior math instructor Natalia Kouzniak and students Angell Lu-Lebel and Brendan Gaulin use wax sticks called "Bendaroos" to plot curves on a graph

Senior instructor Natalia Kouzniak and kinesiology students Angell Lu-Lebel and Brendan Gaulin plot curves on a graph

Juggling high and low technology

Kouzniak quickly recognized that despite her anxiety, she needed to figure out how she was going to teach the course materials to all her students. She appreciated that she was given some advanced notice that Lu-Lebel would be in her class, but would like to see more specialists in the field made available to instructors. There is no braille for math and, although the Centre for Students with Disabilities provides as much support as it can, few resources are offered. Lu-Lebel has a PACMate braille keyboard and the Centre provides access to a 3-D printer to prepare exams, other software, and student aides, but they needed to devise a way to work together on a regular basis.

As a team of four (including the teaching assistant, Pooja Pandey), they invested a great deal more time and energy than they had originally anticipated. They found a solution by juggling high and low technology and a lot of ingenuity. Pandey discovered her child playing with flexible, colourful, wax-coated strings called ‘Bendaroos’ and realized that they would allow Lu-Lebel and Gaulin to complete assessments and exams with the rest of their colleagues. Kouzniak used the strings to layout the graphs, while Lu-Lebel and Gaulin were able to plot curves and understand the geometrical set-up of the problems. (more…)

Emphasis on building a strong SFU community key to pilot Life Sciences Cohort Program

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
Life Sciences Cohort Program students

New friends in the Life Sciences Cohort Program participate in a scavenger hunt. (Photo: G. Frick)

This past September, the Faculty of Science launched a pilot Life Sciences Cohort Program. Inspired by a successful program at the University of Toronto, the Cohort Program is built on the principle that community is key to student success. In this spirit, we set about integrating social activities with academics to create community both in and beyond the classroom.

We began by collaborating with Orientation, a program that’s been building community and welcoming students to SFU for many years. New students are organized into clans of 15-18 students and Orientation Leaders guide them through two fun-filled days of activities. Lisa Ogilvie, Acting Manager of Student Life, was enthusiastic from the start and worked with us to integrate the two programs. With a little coordination, clans became cohorts, Orientation leaders became peer mentors, and the momentum created at Orientation kick-started the Cohort Program.


Pictures of health: Innovative learning activities in KIN 417

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

After dedicating much of the last decade  to championing and advancing  obesity research and knowledge transfer efforts in Canada, Dr. Diane Finegood (Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology) returned to the classroom at SFU for the Winter 2010 semester to teach KIN 417 – Obesity, Adipocyte Function, and Weight Management, an innovative, fourth-year obesity course.

Planning and teaching KIN 417 was a team effort. Dr. Finegood, her research associate Carrie Matteson, and co-instructor Penny Deck chose to design creative, media-rich, writing-intensive learning activities rather than conventional assigned readings, lectures, and exams. Aided by staff from the Learning and Instructional Development Centre (LIDC), they designed assignments that invited students to confront their assumptions and preconceptions about obesity. For example, students explored what “healthy” means by blogging about images of  healthy behaviour they found online or took in their community,  and they deepened their understanding of obesity research by writing a wiki about themes and variables represented in the Foresight Obesity Systems Map.

KIN 417 Course Blog

Students spent five weeks analyzing and blogging about images of healthy behavior. In preparation for the activity, Finegood and Deck worked with LIDC staff to design sample posts,  instructions and training activities to help students find images and use the SFU WordPress blog platform. Finegood and Deck offered weekly feedback to students individually and to the class as a whole  to highlight themes and to encourage students to practice writing evidence-based arguments.

Over the five weeks, Finegood challenged participants to move beyond their initial preconceptions about what healthy living means:

Initially, I think they questioned the value of the exercise, until I pushed them to think outside their traditional box that healthy was just about being active and eating right.  When I threatened to ban pictures of people being active, they had to explore the outer reaches of the obesity system map and start to think and write about the impact of policy or pregnancy and breast feeding.  I think the process of coming up with something new each week got them thinking in new ways rather than just trying to acquire a bunch of information they are likely to forget after the course ended.

For many students, the posts prompted valuable, critical dialogue. Tommy Merth, a Master’s student in Kinesiology who participated in the course, found the exercised  helped him and others to think more critically about arguments and evidence:

commenting was valuable as blog posts often raised questions which were usually addressed by several other students. This mix of learning through reading other blog posts and through research done while replying to posts with supporting evidence forced student to think critically about what they were reading and look at other evidence that may agree or disagree with the original post.

In recognition of the focus on writing KIN 417, Finegood is applying to make KIN 417 a W course, and she plans to teach the course again in Winter 2011. She offers the following advice to instructors interested in experimenting with image analysis activities and blogging in their courses:

This exercise worked well because the students had to repeat it 5 times over the course of 5 weeks and because they received feedback on each contribution.  The keen students worked hard to insure they were coming up with something novel each week.

If you would like to learn more about KIN 417, please contact Diane Finegood.

If you would like help designing blog- and wiki-based learning activities for your course, please contact David Rubeli or Jason Toal at the Teaching and Learning Centre.

How are you challenging your students to address their preconceptions about the subjects you teach? How has writing and reading other students’ blogs enhanced your learning experience at SFU?