Heads of the class

(Edmonton) A little Silly Putty goes a long way. Just ask University of Alberta professor John Nychka, who uses the goo—and a lighthearted assortment of other everyday knick-knacks—to teach his materials engineering students about what really matters—keeping people safe.

Since 2010 Nychka, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, has been assigning his students small metal boxes filled with mechanical pencils, paper clips, lighters and magnets—and an egg of playtime putty—and challenging his classes to solve structural problems.

The design lessons they learn while tinkering get the students thinking about what Nychka sees as the “human factor” and how it matters in their future professional work as they choose safe materials for applications ranging from bridges and office towers to pumps and pipes.

“By making learning accessible, visual and unexpected, I see students get emotionally invested, and that investment is crucial for shifting responsibility and enabling engaged learning.”

Nychka, who earned his undergraduate degree at the U of A and began teaching here in 2007, is one of 10 award-winning U of A instructors from various faculties giving five-minute presentations May 2 at the FoT Spots event, to share how they keep their students engaged and excited in class.

As a drama professor in the Faculty of Arts, David Barnet also believes in the magic of fun. Using a goofy assortment of pool noodles, balls, empty spaces in a classroom and even their own bodies, Barnet, a 3M National Teaching Fellow, gets his students laughing, yelling, moving.

He’ll also be presenting his ideas at the Spots event.

“Playfulness is at the center of it all. When people have the capacity to play, is when discoveries are made.”

By getting physical as they explore juicy masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet, his undergraduate students get a gut feel for a performance. “It takes it out of the head and puts it into the body, so the energy required to do a scene is released.”

Barnet began teaching at the U of A in 1972 and loves it all just as much today as he did then.

“It’s so much fun. There’s a free flow of energy and it’s so reciprocal. Nothing happens to the students that doesn’t happen to the professors. You ask the students to risk everything, and you risk a lot.”

Both Barnet and Nychka  appreciate that the U of A fosters freedom to teach creatively.

“What I enjoy about teaching here is the great support we get for taking risks. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t, but people here believe in what we as teachers are trying to do,” Nychka said.

Festival of Teaching Spots begins May 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Room 2-490 of the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy and wraps up with a reception at 8:45 p.m. Everyone is welcome and is asked to register here