Four 3M awards for U of A

(Edmonton)  If there was ever a question as to the University of Alberta’s strength as a teaching-intensive university, the latest announcement of 3M National Teaching Fellowships should remove any doubt.

Four University of Alberta professors have been named 3M Teaching Fellows in the 2012 list. Sarah Forgie (pediatrics), Charles Lucy (chemistry), Toni Samek (library and information studies) and Connie Varnhagen (psychology) now have their names added to the list of the previous 34 recipients from the U of A, for a total of 38.

It is the second time the U of A has had four winners in one year. The university is the only institution since the fellowship’s inception to have had four in one year, according to the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, the organization that administers the awards in conjunction with 3M.

By the society’s own definition, these individuals “embody the highest ideals of teaching excellence and scholarship with a commitment to enhance the educational experience of every learner.” And while they have many similar qualities, both personally and professionally, each of the recipients has aspects of his or her teaching style and personality that make them exceptional choices.

Here’s a closer look at our winners.

Sarah Forgie, associate professor, Department of Pediatrics

If striving for creativity in teaching were infectious, a case could be made to label Sarah Forgie Patient 0. From reciting beatnik poetry describing peritonitis or writing bug bios, to creating lecture podcasts or tasking students with creating rap to explain medical conditions, Forgie goes to great lengths to be inventive in the classroom—all with the goal of helping aspiring doctors remember the vital information they need.

“It falls back to the need to ensure that people have a memory hanger—something to hang those memories on— so I just try to come up with different ways to do that,” says Forgie.

Forgie isn’t happy resting on her creative laurels. Her inventive nature drove her, for example, to learn to play a ukulele and rewrite a pop song to teach students about strep pharyngitis (strep throat).

“I like to think of it as my own little epidemic of making teaching fun in medical education,” says Forgie. “Whenever I have a student doing a project with me, I do my best to make sure they work as my emissaries, spreading the ‘bug.’”

Charles Lucy, professor, Department of Chemistry

For Charles ‘Chuck’ Lucy, it’s about the personal connections with his students. He’s used to looking out into a sea of nameless faces in his chemistry classes, but his desire is to put names to those faces. He encouraged one of his classes this year to get to know their classroom neighbours, since they would be sharing their educational experience.

Lucy also thinks it’s important to engage students actively in learning with him. His classes are about problem-solving—and not just having students sit watching him come up with the solutions, he says. It’s about students gaining experience by working on the problems, as well. “I’ve watched Kobe Bryant play basketball for years,” he says. “I still can’t shoot like that.”

Lucy is not above making chemistry entertaining and relative to students’ sociocultural experience, but he’s not an advocate of what he calls the “flash-bang demo.” He opts for an experience that links higher-level concepts and explains the science visually and accurately. That may be by adding a roll of Mentos to a bottle of Diet Coke or recreating an experiment students recognize as a prank used in an episode of TV’s Big Bang Theory.

“I try to make the course relevant,” he said. “I want the demos to integrate with what we’re doing, but I don’t mind if they’re fun.”

Toni Samek, professor, School of Library and Information Studies

One of Toni Samek’s wishes as a professor is for her students to surpass the teacher. The task of imparting knowledge and education to eager minds is not a task she takes lightly—she is quick to point out that she is an activist for education and firmly believes in the right to education. Yet while her students will find a safe learning space in her classroom, she makes it clear they must learn that deepening the mind is not without risks.

“Education is not safe. You’re learning new things, you’re challenging yourself, and the context you’re learning in is a moving target—legislation, economy, politics, ideology, technology. All of these things are changing around us,” says Samek. “I don’t want students to go along passively. They have a right and responsibility to engage and even to challenge their own education.”

Samek also believes in teaching students that knowledge comes with the inherent responsibility to do something with it. “For me, it’s driven by the Jeffersonian principle of informed citizenry. It’s not just to get a piece of paper and get on with your life,” she says. “You are an informed citizen in society and you will use your education to move forward and make a positive difference.”

Connie Varnhagen, professor, Department of Psychology

It could be said that Connie Varnhagen likes making students push buttons—the buttons on the i-clicker of an interactive whiteboard, that is. Or letting them loose to make discoveries on their own. Varnhagen’s focus is on empowering students and enriching their experience, and her motto can be summed up as “do what works.” Her passion is getting her students engaged, whether by using the clickers to foster discussion or encouraging students to explore the Internet and social media.

For Varnhagen, the quest for knowledge is never complete, even when she is leading the class. “I’m a lifelong learner, right along with the students,” she says.

A longtime advocate of undergraduate research in the classroom, Varnhagen sees the undergraduates as the university’s “greatest resource” for discovering new knowledge and creating new works. She encourages the students to stretch their boundaries to reach their full potential.

“Getting students to think outside the box—be critical, be creative and discover new things—that’s the only way they’re going to learn and get ahead in the world, says Varnhagen.