We're putting the spotlight on innovative teaching practices at UTM!
This page contains excerpts of interviews with faculty involved in advancing teaching practice on our campus.
Shay Fuchs, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Dept. of Mathematical and Computational Sciences, UTM SoTL Fellow
Developing and Implementing Active-Learning Techniques in a Large First-Year Calculus Course (SoTL Fellow Research)
Starting with the question how to effectively introduce active-learning pedagogies in Calculus for Life Sciences courses (MAT132H5 and MAT134H5), Dr. Fuchs is building on his work on inquiry-based learning to investigate the effectiveness of active-learning methods compared to traditional lecture-based approaches. Dr. Fuchs and his team are using reading guides, iClicker questions, pre and post-class quizzes and in-class activities to actively engage students during class time, and gather real-time data on students' learning and misconceptions. This SoTL research will ultimately allow for a more effective, research-based course design, and have a long-term impact on student performance and their learning experience.
What brought you to teaching?
I have been interested in teaching from a very young age. The first time I remember teaching was in grade 4, we had an event at school where students would teach the classes, and teachers would be students in the class. I volunteered to teach a math class; I was teaching exponents and powers. This is something that is taught after grade 4, more like grade 6, but I knew a little bit about it and my mother is a math teacher, so I looked through her books. This was my first teaching experience.
Throughout undergrad, I taught high school and middle school. I would teach one or two classes every year and also give private lessons before eventually becoming a teaching assistant at the university.
What brought you to UTM?
I came to Canada in 2003 to do my PhD at UofT. Part of my PhD was having a teaching assistantship. One summer, in 2006, they were looking for more experienced graduate students to teach a summer course and that was the first time I taught a course at UTM. I then taught here a few times, and when I graduated with my PhD I was a sessional for 1 year and then part-time for 1 year. In 2010, I was hired full time in the department of mathematical and computational sciences.
What is your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy has changed over the years. Even 10 years ago it was quite different. I came from a background where, like today, most math classes were delivered by lectures. Therefore, at first this is how I taught, because that is what I experienced as a student. I would also do interactive lecturing where I would ask questions of students and students would ask me questions.
In recent years there has been a shift in active learning; and mathematics as a discipline were slower to incorporate this strategy than other disciplines. I started to realize that lecturing, as much as I enjoy it, and as much as the students enjoy my lectures and feel that they learn from them, in practice is not very effective. Lectures have become less effective over the years because our environment is changing and our technology is changing, therefore strategies that worked well in the past don't work as well any more.
My philosophy now has more evidence-based teaching and the inclusion of activities to make sure students are actively engaged with the material. It is only when the students have the skills they achieve through active learning that lecturing can work well. So I work on developing these skills in class. Active learning is becoming a bigger part of my teaching philosophy where I monitor and support students throughout the process.
You were recently awarded the UTM SoTL fellowship. Can you tell us what this fellowship means to you and what your project is about that is associated with the fellowship?
I was using lectures; I was using traditional methods. I thought my lectures were good and they should work well, students thought the lectures were good but the evidence said otherwise. In this large first year calculus course with 600-700 students, with multiple instructors, and many teaching assistants. Students’ performance on tests and exams were poor and many students were failing the course.
So I asked myself what could we do? How can we get students to perform better and understand the material better and be able to apply it? Active learning is one of the main strategies that has enough evidence of a promising method that will bring success and improvement. The issue is that converting a course to an active learning course when you have a big class, with multiple instructors, and multiple TAs is a huge project. As well, there are not enough good examples of first year big math courses that have been converted to active learning so there is not a lot of material that you can use as a resource.
This fellowship allows me to have access to resources and invest in the transition and the redesign of the course. I started thinking about this during my sabbatical in 2016-2017. I spent some time reading articles and visiting classes. I learned more about active learning and how to implement those strategies in large classes. Unfortunately, there are not many examples in math but I looked at other disciplines and I borrowed a lot of those techniques and strategies. This fellowship is providing me the resources, time, and the expertise of people who know about active learning to guide the project. It is also about recognition of the task; converting a large math course into active learning is new and unique and people should know about it. In general, in Canada there are very few active learning large mathematics courses and some are not a full conversion but more like bits and pieces, which were not entirely successful.
Besides your SoTL research do you have any pedagogical or teaching projects past or present that you wish to highlight?
We also introduced a bit of active learning in a third year course, in MAT337, which is a course that I have only taught three times so far. However, it is a course that required changes and we could not quite use inquiry-based learning because it is a larger course with 60-70 students. Therefore, we introduced active learning in the tutorials that are smaller. This is something that we just started last year and are continuing this year.
Another project I have worked on are the course notes for the proof course, MAT102. I was asked to redevelop this course when I was hired in 2010. Over the years, I tried many times to redesign the course but the textbooks I found were not appropriate to our students. Nothing I found in the textbooks where aligned with the course and the goals of the program. Therefore, I wrote notes that could become like the textbook for the course even though it is not the official textbook. This is the third year that it has been used. The proof course is nice because it introduces students to thinking skills and problem solving skills. There is very little about computations, it is about reading, and about using language in a careful way. Every institution has its own proof courses and it is not a standardized curriculum because every institution has different goals for this course. Sometimes it is a third year course; here it is a first year course. Many computer science students take this course. We had to create a course that is specific to our students and their background. I plan to do more work these notes as this is first version and I have ideas I want to change or add. I taught the course 14 times before writing the notes, which allowed me to write a lot of exercises and test questions to put in the notes. In the notes, we have more than 200 original exercises that we created at UTM. Students get it free as a pdf. This course is closer to real math, it is not what we think of when you think of math but it is the real math. Students switch their major to math after this course because it is so interesting and they find out it is about being creative and experimenting. It is about coming up with new ideas and about solving puzzles. I am very fond of this course.
What is the most important things you have learned in over the years as a professor?
One of the main changes or transformation in the way I think about teaching and learning is that when I came here I had many students who did not perform well and I thought these students did not care or did not try hard enough. However, over the years I have discovered this is not the case for a majority of the students. Many students are not doing well because they do not know how to learn and they do not have the skills to prepare properly. The metacognitive skills are not there. Students think that they are learning, they think that they understand the concepts and think they are ready for a test or exam but they are not. Telling them to study more is not helpful.
It is not that students are lazy or they do not care, but many students are trying their best. The only way to help them is to invest in developing the skills they need to succeed. Active learning can bring skill development into the classroom, and show students how to check whether they understand or not. So I would suggest that it is important to find the root cause of why things are not working and then find an evidence-based teaching strategies and approach to address that issue.
What do you think is one of the greatest pedagogical benefit of being at UTM?
I really like being at UTM because we really focus on undergraduate education. The teaching stream faculty are really focused on undergraduate education and there is no tension with the research area. Most of our resources are dedicated to undergraduate education. In terms of reading courses and research opportunities, they are all designed for undergraduates. There is more interaction with faculty, more opportunities to discuss with your faculty here. As well because we are not in the middle of downtown, people tend to be more on campus, even on their breaks, so that brings opportunities for interaction, and makes it feel more like a community.
Paul Piunno, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Associate Chair Teaching, Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences. Recipient of President's Teaching Award
What brought you to teaching and UTM ?
The first time I was asked to be a sessional instructor, I was in-between start-up biotechnology jobs. The company originally supporting our commercialization endeavor went into financial difficulty and laid-off the development team. Fortunately, I still had some large grants in my possession. One of the grants was a Genome Canada grant, and I was able to secure space at the University to continue research on the sensor technology we were developing with that funding. During that stay, Ulli Krull asked me if I would like to try teaching CHM211 and CHM311. At the time, I wanted to do my research, I was all about research and had no interest in teaching. Without realizing it, that request was the best thing that ever happened to me because that's when I learned that I loved to teach.
It was so rewarding and enjoyable; the feedback from the students made it all worth it. In my second year as a sessional instructor (2004/2005) I won the SAC/APUS Undergraduate Teaching Award. I then went back to industry and I didn't teach for a while. I came back as a sessional in 2009, because of the global financial crisis that hit in late 2008 and the start-up I was with (a second start-up) ran into difficulties. I interviewed for the lecturer in analytical chemistry position being offered at the time (a teaching stream appointment) and I was lucky enough to get it. I formally started as a faculty member at UTM in 2010. In the beginning of my career, I was not interested in pedagogy at all and I kind of tripped into it. I learned I loved it only after I had the opportunity to teach.
What is your teaching philosophy?
There is no better way of instruction than to engage students in research experiences. I think research is the absolute best teacher, hence the development of the Advanced Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory (AIRLab), JCB487. Together with my colleague, Prof. Marc Laflamme, we endeavored to develop UTM290: Launching Your Research. The course expanded beyond the AIRLab model to include an international field research experience, and a scaffolded introduction to research best practices in order to quickly and thoughtfully educate second-year students about science research, both in theory and practice. I have always been focused on research because that is what drove my passion for science.
How do you maintain your subject matter expertise?
Almost every summer since I began my faculty appointment, I have gone back to the last biotech company I was with as a consultant to help them update their project management system, write their validation documents for clinical trials, or help them with ongoing technology development. So staying in practice is very important. Especially in the teaching stream because it is just too easy to focus only on teaching and fall out of practice in your particular area of specialization.
The other thing that I look forward to when summer comes is to go into the lab and take recent advancements, in my case in analytical chemistry, and develop new laboratory modules around those advancements. I love to get into the lab and roll up my sleeves. For example for CHM397, we developed a 4-week lab on microfluidics in which students make their own lab-on-chip devices from scratch. We published this work too. I strongly believe that if you are going to engage in creative educational development, you need to get it out there and share the expertise.
You were recently awarded the President's Teaching Award. This means you will now be part of the Teaching Academy for 5 years. Can tell us a bit about what this award means to you?
I am humbled. I simply do what I do, and I enjoy doing it. I have colleagues who are very supportive and want to see the work I am doing recognized, and I am grateful for that. We have a great group of people in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences (CPS) who are supportive and encouraging and they are always there to put your name forward. I really owe this opportunity to Mark Laflamme and Ulli Krull, for nominating me and taking the lead on the application. In terms of what this award means to me, well, it’s a call to further engage in creative educational development and in the continued dissemination of that work.
What is some advice you have for fellow colleges based on your years as a professor?
Try to incorporate career-ready skills as much as possible into your teaching. Communication is one such skill, and a lot of what I do also includes discussion sessions because I think it is very important for people to be able to clearly and concisely articulate what they are doing and why they are doing it. Discussion sessions are a form of active learning that I think is quite important and it is a career skill that is invaluable. For those who can communicate well, opportunities will manifest.
Students also need to learn how to work in a professional capacity with others. That is a big focus in industry, and to that end, opportunities for teamwork skills development should be implemented in teaching wherever possible.
These are skills you can translate anywhere. If you make your teaching environment a friendly and encouraging one, and integrate teaching these career ready skills in your courses, your students will appreciate their training and the effort placed into making it happen. Whether our students go into industry or academia, these are important skills to have. In particular, teamwork is so important in a professional setting; you need to learn how to recognize people's strengths, embrace their perspectives as well as your own, and learn how to avoid conflict and move forward productively.
Do you have previous or current pedagogical projects that you would like to highlight?
Previously, together with my colleagues, I worked to develop JCB487Y5Y: The Advanced Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory (AIRLab) course. AIRLab serves as an alternative to the traditional fourth year research thesis course: student teams are assembled to work toward the completion of an interdisciplinary research project. Each team, consisting of 3-5 students, is comprised of at least one student from a differing area of specialization (e.g., biology, chemistry, earth sciences and physics) and projects are based on current trends in research. In addition to a rigorous introduction to research, students also learn teamwork skills and practice modern project management techniques.
My current projects are a bit more technical. For years now I have been going to Port Credit Secondary School. I was asked years ago to come in and give a guest lecture on titrations, which is not the most exciting topic in chemistry. So what I did instead was to build Arduino based autotitrators. I 3D printed the instrument shells, incorporated a drop counter and a pH electrode. Students can plug these autotitrators into their laptops and the titrators count drops and record pH values. I teach them how to program their Arduino microcontroller to input the specific drop volume that the burette they’re using actually delivers. Students then analyze their titration data and identify the unknown acid sample that they were provided. That is so much better than giving a lecture on acid-base titrations. This is me practicing my teaching philosophy with regards to experiential learning.
I am also working with number of graduate students interested in pedagogy on the development of new laboratory modules. This work is focused on providing undergraduate students with new learning experiences based on newly acquired instruments in our core laboratory. This work has been made possible through the support of the chemistry teaching fellowships program. For example, one student is working on a laboratory module where students will synthesize gold nanoparticles and characterize them using our new electron microscope. We have new localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) equipment, and I have another student on a chemistry teaching fellowship working on a new laboratory module on LSPR biosensing, which we hope to publish. And there is yet another student working on improving our existing microfluidics laboratory based on new photolithography equipment that we recently acquired. The graduate students in analytical chemistry here are wonderful and I work hard to secure funding to get new equipment so that together we can develop new and cool laboratory experiments and publish those developments in pedagogical journals.
Overall, I have also participated in numerous forms of creative educational development work to help students better prepare for laboratory experiments, achieve a functional understanding of difficult concepts, and to provide them with new practical learning experiences aimed at the teaching of modern analytical chemistry techniques. The development and dissemination of novel laboratory experiments and modules is a priority for me.
Tell me about the Chemistry Teaching Fellowships?
Graduate students prepare formal grant proposals that are reviewed either here in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences, or the Department of Chemistry at the St. George campus, in which they outline the pedagogical work they would like to do. It is a complete grant application, with an overview of the project, learning outcomes, how these learning outcomes will be assessed, and it also includes how that work will be disseminated. I have three students working with me now as teaching fellows and I think it’s a wonderful program.
What are some exciting teaching innovations that have you implemented in your classes?
Our core instrument laboratory is our core laboratory for research and for teaching and I want that facility to be modern and up to date. I want to bring in modern concepts, such as nanotechnology, nanoparticles and the characterization of nanoparticles, to our laboratories here in CPS. For example, the Krull research group is focused on the development of nanoparticle based intercellular sensors; I want to introduce undergraduate students to this exciting field of chemistry. My innovations focus on keeping up with trends in the field.
What do you think is one of the greatest pedagogical benefits of being at UTM?
It is a small community which greatly facilitates multidisciplinary collaborations, such as AIRlab and research. From my industry experience I have learned you can't do science in silos. All real world challenges involve multidisciplinary collaboration and participation and this campus lends to that. Our department is multidisciplinary and I routinely collaborate with the physicists and earth scientists. You would never get that anywhere else. It is wonderful not only in terms of doing the science but the discourse with colleagues as well. That's what I love about UTM. It is big enough but it is small enough all at the same time. And we have a good teaching community here as well. I love the pedagogical book club that is running and the TLC workshops that encourage people to get out and get involved. I always feel free to drop in to talk and it's nice to have those resources on campus.
How long have you been teaching?
I started teaching in 2012 as a teaching professor at Singapore polytechnic, a local college in Singapore and I've been teaching ever since.
When did you start at UTM?
September 2016. My family relocated here. Ideally I wanted to carry on with my teaching, and my PhD supervisor was visiting at UofT that June, and that eventually led into teaching here.
You are a sessional lecturer at UTM. What is the most important things to keep in mind when you are teaching as sessional?
One piece of advice that I have for my fellow sessional instructors is to take opportunities to make progress in terms of your own teaching. Join teaching and learning communities. Work on education research projects. Talk to people, connect to people, and present your work. I believe many of us are doing amazing work, it's just not a habit for many people to really go out there and stand up and talk about their work. I believe this is important, to get what you have done heard, and get feedback from people so you can improve your teaching practice.
When I was working here the first year as a sessional lecturer, I didn’t go to any conferences, I didn’t submit any papers because I was not aware of the support there available. In fact there is support, so reach out to the chair of your department, to the teaching and learning collaboration (TLC), to your colleagues who have been doing this kind of work, talk to them and see what kind of projects you want to get into.
What are some exciting teaching innovations that have you implemented in your classes?
GeoGebra is a visualization tool for math learners. I introduced GeoGebra in my linear algebra teaching last year. I did a project supported by TDI exploring how using GeoGebra would help students with engagement. That's something that I am really excited about and proud that we have this in class for students to see linear algebra visually instead of formulas and equations and computations. Especially for mathematics topics because a majority of them can be so abstract, that even when you define them so nicely, through the proofs and theorems, students may still find it difficult to appreciate the ideas. Once they can see what happens when you multiply a matrix with a vector you have an intuition for the thing we are measuring.
What do you think is one of the greatest pedagogical benefits of being at UTM?
I think it's the community. I joined two pedagogical reading groups last year and that's where I had the chance to meet colleagues from other departments and other programs who are teaching completely different courses. I had the chance to talk with people, to learn from people. I have never had such opportunities anywhere else and I think this is great.
What advice do you have for others who may be interested in bringing in active learning to their courses?
The starting point is always asking yourself do you see any issues in your classroom, start with that question and then go out and search for solutions. Active learning is a big term, it has many elements, there are many ways to do active learning in your class. So once you are clear about your issues it is probably going to be easier for you to find a solution. The solution is probably out there already, you don't need to invent anything, you just need to be clear about what kind of problem you want to solve. And don't be afraid to talk to people and ask questions.
You are an eCampus OE Fellow. What do you think about the future of OER (Open Educational Resources) and some uses in higher education?
For faculty the most important reason for adopting OERs in our teaching practice is actually because of our students. We want the students to benefit from using OERs. When we think about the challenges that our students face today, that is usually the starting point for us to think about supporting them in a different way which naturally leads to OERs. OERs will allow them to save every semester and it may help them to eat properly, to take the bus to school, to meet with friends in a library, so all of this in return will help students perform better academically. So never think of OERs as just a textbook or a resource, it might benefit students in many other ways.
What would you say to people who bring up aspects of rigor and quality in terms of OERs?
People question how we can make sure the quality of OERs are at a standard. To answer that question let's ask ourselves how do we guarantee the quality of the textbooks published by publishers. Well those books were reviewed by peers. OERs have been reviewed by the same group of peers and you can contribute as well because if you are an expert in the field you can review and add resources and whatever you believe should be improved. That's the beauty of OER.
Any last thoughts or comments on UTM, teaching and learning, or pedagogy?
It is really important to connect with people who share your interests so that you can develop your practice and further your career and make improvements. You do not want your teaching to stay the same, you probably have things you want to change. There are many exciting things happening all the time, let's bring that excitement to class. And our student body is changing so you probably can't teach students in 10 years from now the same way we are teaching our current students.
You’ve just started an inaugural teaching fellow position at CTSI. What exactly is a teaching fellow?
That’s an excellent question! Because I am one of the first such people at the University (Charly Bank from Earth Sciences UTSG is the other one), the role is being defined as we go. So far we are participating as we can in the CTSI’s programs, such as the Teaching Assistant Training Program, and getting to know the community of specialists at the Centre and drawing on their expertise towards the completion of our projects.
Can you expand on the teaching & learning project that are you focusing on while at CTSI?
I am working on revising and developing new materials and techniques for an old course, ENG205 (Rhetoric); rather than using the textbook materials and the lecture-based technique that I have in the past, I am developing an electronic textbook/workbook for the course and building the classroom experience around active and collaborative learning.
How did this project come out of your teaching & learning experience at UTM?
Very directly! We are currently in the middle of a multi-year pilot project on Active Learning Classrooms; I’ve already run one course in these experimental spaces and am running two more this year. The idea for the project came directly out of that experience, finding out the possibilities and limitations of the space and the materials we use in it.
What does this suggest for the future of teaching & learning at UTM?
The plan currently is for the expansion of ALCs at UTM, so more and more classes will find themselves in these new spaces as time goes on. What I and a number of other people on this campus are currently working on is the development of best practices and resources for faculty and students who come to be in those spaces.
You are currently the chair of UTM’s Active Learning Working Group. What exactly is active learning?
The most basic definition is, students engaged in doing things and critiquing their own process as they do them. In other words, it’s not a foreign concept for most of us in higher education; we’ve been modeling and fostering reflective critical thinking for our whole careers. Active Learning Classrooms and other environments are just spaces that are designed in such a way as to bring those techniques into the centre of our teaching practice.
What advice do you have for professors that are interested in bringing active learning into their courses?
Although we will be developing new spaces, you don’t have to have a specialized room to do active learning. It is a style of teaching that is adaptable in pretty much any situation, even, to some extent, in large lecture halls. The best way to start is to develop some student exercises (the RGASC or CTSI can help you with this) and start incorporating them into your work when you see opportunities to do so.
What piece of advice would you give to junior faculty that are interested in teaching & learning?
Again, a great place to start would be the RGASC or the CTSI, both of which have resourceful and helpful experts on staff. If you are new teaching-stream faculty, another thing that I have found helpful is to make friends with teaching-stream people in other departments; often you will have as much in common with their experience as you will with research-stream faculty in your own department.