Maria Klawe returns to the U of A to give the Festival of Teaching keynote address

(Edmonton) Maria Klawe knows a thing or two about teaching. Both her parents started teaching at the University of Alberta in the 1960s. Klawe herself taught her first classes in arts and crafts at the age of 14. Four years later, she followed her parents’ footsteps into the lecture hall in her second year of her undergrad degree, working as a teaching assistant for an honours calculus class.

On Mar. 7, Klawe, who earned her bachelor of science and a PhD in mathematics at the U of A, returns to the place where it all started for her to share some of her insight into the art and science of teaching as the keynote speaker for the opening of the 2011 Festival of Teaching. The presentation, entitled, Teaching: Trials and Triumphs, will be held at the TELUS Centre Auditorium at 5 p.m.

Klawe, who created the Kathleen W. Klawe Prize for Excellence in Teaching of Large Classes in honour of her mother, recalls the impact that her mother had on her and her students. She remembers taking her mother’s first-year economics course and marvelling at her ability to work successfully with large groups.

“There were probably 1,100 students taking first-year economics at the time; she taught 800 of them in two 400-student sections,” said Klawe. “People would try to get into her classes rather than the smaller classes.”

Klawe’s love of teaching and her family roots seemed to be a guaranteed foray into the classroom. Teaching “was always something that I loved doing,” she said. However, her choices have taken her in a different direction. Much of her career has been spent in academic administration, such as her current role as president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif.

But those times that she did step into the classroom say a lot about her teaching skills and her knack for reaching students. In her classes, Klawe explored various methods of engaging the students in active learning. She said student feedback and participation helped her understand what worked for them and what didn’t in terms of reaching students and communicating her teaching messages. She noted that speaking with other instructors also helped her formulate lessons on what worked and what didn’t. One thing that seemed to work for her was plying some artistic talent in her math class.

“I decided that I would draw a cartoon about discrete mathematics for every class that I taught,” she said. “We tried a lot of things related to the class (content) that were fun.”

Klawe’s homecoming to the Festival of Teaching is, in her words, part of honouring her mother’s legacy. She says exploration of teaching is key and that teaching has moved on from the lecture-style model. Her experience tells her that effective teaching will continue to evolve and expand as teachers continue to examine new approaches to engage students, linking to a notion that research and teaching have more in common than some may realize, she said.

“In our research and scholarly work, we explore new ideas and new approaches all the time. Teaching is also an area in which you can discover new things and influence the impact you have on students.”

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