3M winner gets satisfaction from students' ah-ha moments

(Edmonton) The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Scott North has won a prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

North is one of two new 3M Fellows at the University of Alberta, along with Billy Strean from the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. (Watch for an upcoming ExpressNews article on Strean and his work.)

North, who is the fourth faculty member to win a 3M award, says his win is really a team win. He says he works with a great group and has had wonderful mentorship over the years. He also appreciates the faculty culture where teaching excellence is strongly encouraged. The U of A alone has produced more 3M award winners than any other university in the country, he says.

Fraser Brenneis, vice-dean for the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, nominated North for the award and was pleased about his win: “Dr. North is an exceptionally good teacher of cancer education for our learners and an advocate for cancer care. This award is a well-deserved acknowledgement of his tireless efforts and his skills in these domains.”

North, an associate professor of oncology, received the news by telephone last month.

“I literally had to sit down because I was so flabbergasted. I’m very honoured because I know this is a prestigious award,” said North, who has been with the faculty since 2000.

North is being recognized for his inspirational teaching of second-year medical students. Each year, North teaches a four-week block on oncology in the spring. The course introduces medical students to the general principles of cancer, how to diagnose cancer, what symptoms to watch for and some ideas on how to come up with a treatment strategy for their patients.

Instead of giving students experience with just paper-based cases, North brings in an alternative-medicine practitioner or a patient using alternative therapies. In one instance, a patient dying of cancer came in with his wife to talk to the students about their grieving process. Actors also visit the class to act out different scenarios as patients with varying types of cancer-like symptoms. In one exercise, North has the students practise what it’s like to break bad news to patients who have been told they have terminal cancer.

North says the best part of teaching is the satisfaction he gets when students have that “ah-ha” moment when studying difficult concepts. As a practising oncologist, he says, “teaching is that foil for the bad days when nothing is going well, and your favourite patient has been told the worst news you could imagine. Teaching gives you that outlet where you can have a lot of fun with the students and empower them with their learning.”

When he meets oncologists who took his course years ago, he is encouraged when they tell him his course is what inspired them to become cancer specialists. When students confess they weren’t looking forward to the course, but felt they could deal with terminally ill cancer patients when it ended, North knows he’s making a difference.

“Part of my teaching philosophy I’ve articulated as a tree analogy. If I can provide them with the branches, they’ll put all the leaves on. And leaves are transient. The details will come and go and change, but if you teach people frameworks, then they can continually update so the tree will self-renew.”

In June, North will attend a conference in Saskatoon where he will officially receive his 3M award.

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