My Classroom as a Reef - Review of utm290H5

Coral Reef inside tank
Tuesday, April 4, 2017 - 12:08pm
Melissa Berger

Wandering the depths of the William G. Davis Building searching to locate the newly renovated Earth Sciences Research Laboratories, I thankfully ran into Professor Marc Laflamme who was also on his way to view his students’ presentations on their research field trip.  Entering the laboratory, I was immediately drawn to the bright pop of teal accenting the space.  The colour had a calming effect and I thought how perfect it was to set the tone for what we were about to embark on.

Steadily, the students made their way into the lab, setting up their presentations and rehearsing for the audience which consisted of Graduate students, Faculty and Staff.  Professors Marc Laflamme (Earth Science) and Paul Piunno (Chemistry) from the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences led this group of eager and enthusiastic second year students on a journey that would ultimately change their lives.  utm290H5 Launching Your Research is a course offered through the Office of Student Transition that exposes UTM Scholars students to unique methods of learning both inside and out of the classroom.  This course saw 11 students on a journey to San Salvador in The Bahamas to conduct research at the Gerace Research Centre over the February 2017 Reading Week break.

When your classroom is a reef, the challenges you can encounter on a daily basis can and will be quite different from those in an ordinary lecture environment.  Students began their days early and ended them late; gaining the understanding and experience of what research in the field truly consists of.  While undergoing their activities with fervor and enthusiasm the students in utm290H5 learned how to problem solve on the spot, how to multitask, and how to shift gears on some ambitious research goals for a one week field placement.

The students, divided into three teams, each delivered their presentations based on the research they conducted both on the island and within the lab.  The teams expertly delivered presentations that were eye-catching, well thought out, and incorporated each member.  The students were confident and articulate when asked questions from the audience as they responded with ease.  It was clear they were passionate about their research and developed a strong understanding of the subject matter.  The level by which the students prepared and executed their research and presentations was impressive for students who are in their early years of study.  This course is a testament to how students in any discipline can excel given the opportunity to work with dedicated faculty.

But unlike a standard research field course, these students were coming together from different disciplines and were faced with the challenges of executing their research goals with a twist - they were required to come up with their own research questions and methodologies.  This approach of student-centred, team-based interdisciplinary research lies within the core of experiential learning where the responsibility for the learning is put into the hands of the students.  The skills and practices that these students gained over the course of their experience in San Salvador enables lifelong learning, along with research and problem-solving capabilities that will assist them in their continued studies at UTM, into their daily lives, and future careers.

Demonstrating the impact and importance of their work in San Salvador, two of the three student groups presented their research amongst their peers as part of the 4th year Chemistry Poster Presentations held at UTM on March 31, 2017.  One of these students was fortunate to present his poster at the Advances in Earth Science Research Conference (AESRC) held at the University of Western Ontario on Saturday April 1, 2017.  Opportunities such as utm290H5 further demonstrate the importance and benefits of experiential learning, and the broader impact experiences like these have for everyone involved at UTM.

Professors Laflamme and Piunno charted a course for these second-year students and set a trajectory for them to excel, which demonstrates how extraordinary these two faculty members are, the impacts they have, and how they successfully provided a group of students with first-hand experience in the field while studying abroad.  Experiential learning through courses like utm290H5 is one of the many ways to enhance the undergraduate experience at UTM, and we are certainly proud to call Professors Laflamme and Piunno our very own.

To read more about the student experiences in San Salvador, please visit their blog at: https://bahamastripblog.wordpress.com/