Off the Blackboard

Across faculties, professors offer students new opportunities for learning

by Caity Hui

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        In 1999, McGill’s World of Chemistry professors digitized around 6,000 35 mm slides to implement the lecture recording system (LRS) now employed in over 350 courses for about 50,000 students on campus. In 2011, the first Lorne Trottier Lecture Symposium was conducted, taking full advantage of the power conferred by webcasting technology to connect a single speaker series with a wide audience beyond the McGill community. And, in 2014, Dr. Samantha Gruenheid, an Associate Professor of Microbiology, revamped her laboratory course to incorporate crowd sourcing as a method to achieve scientific discovery.

        New developments impacting departments and faculties at McGill continue to push the boundaries of teaching and learning. From peace negotiation simulations to crowdsourcing science, these initiatives are not only enhancing students’ learning experiences, but also generating a host of novel ideas and involvement outside the classroom.

        Political science Professor Rex Brynen, for instance, has been pioneering a unique approach to teaching peace-building in his course POLI 450. Popularly known as “Sim Week,” the students within the course are exposed to a weeklong civil war simulation within the fictitious land of Brynania. The students take on various roles to explore issues from the civil war associated with peace building.

        “The challenge of the simulation is to negotiate and implement a peace agreement without it all falling apart,” Brynen explained. “It’s very intense, in semi-real time, taking place both face-to-face and electronically—by email, chat, or Skype.”

        Initially designed for a class of 25 students, Brynen’s simulation has expanded over the years to encompass around 100 undergraduates. While other courses at McGill run simulation negotiations, this weeklong event takes on a significantly larger scale than any other class at the university.

        “The class generates up to 15,000 emails during the simulation—all of which I have to read,” said Brynen. “Most students become very engaged with it.”

        Beyond breaking up the monotony of a lecture-based course, the purpose of Sim Week is to provide students with the opportunity to apply their skills acquired in the class to a real-life situation. Brynen explained that for students working in areas like international development or conflict resolution, it is particularly important to have an experiential component integrated into students’ education, whether in the form of internships, field study, or—in the case of POLI 450—simulations.

        “One of the challenges in teaching this topic is that it is very easy to read stuff on how you are supposed to negotiate peace agreements,” Brynen said. “In practice, however, it is highly complex and dynamic, characterized by mixed motives, imperfect information, and many second and third order effects.”

        Brynen emphasized that while lectures provide students with the knowledge and foundations to develop peace-building policies, these more passive learning styles do not recreate the complexities that occur in a realistic experience.

        “Lectures and text are great and wonderful things,” Brynen said, “But the simulation is really designed to bring home the stuff that lectures don’t bring home well.”

        The majority of comments each year following Sim Week echo Brynen’s observations.

        “You do so much theorizing and writing [in the course],” said Jake Heller to Tv McGill, a participant in the 2010 rendition of the simulation. “It was really refreshing to sit down at the table with someone and negotiate and apply a lot of the things that I have learned in some of the classes.”

        Despite the advantages of this new resource as a teaching tool, Brynen cautions that simulation-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Depending on the course, lectures provide opportunities for professors to quickly cover large volumes of information in a logical fashion.

        “It would be challenging to run a simulation for a class of 600 students,” Brynen said. “[POLI 450] has a lot of games because the course focuses on a lot of operational issues, and games give an experiential sense of those. Conversely, my Middle East politics class has no games in it and I don’t plan on introducing them because the lectures serve better at covering the material.”

        While POLI 450’s simulation stands as a novel learning tool within the McGill community, teaching styles across faculties are paralleling this cross training through various other avenues.

“Lectures and text are great and wonderful things,” Brynen said, “But the simulation is really designed to bring home the stuff that lectures don’t bring home well.”

        Natural Disasters (ATOC 185), for example, is harnessing the use of technology to provide students with new channels of applying their learning—albeit through a substantially different approach from Sim Week.

        Following the release of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)—run for the first time last summer to the general public—the professors of ATOC 185 sought to integrate various features of the MOOC into their classroom. According to John Stix, a professor from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and lecturer in ATOC 185, they transitioned a quarter of the lectures from an in-class talk to an online platform.

        “We didn’t know how this was going to work, but we took our MOOC lectures for 25 per cent of the course, and we put them on MyCourses,” Stix explained. “Instead of the students coming to those classes, they would see the lectures and view them online. [We then used the lecture time] for group assignments.”

        By restructuring the course to incorporate an online lecture component, the coordinators of ATOC 185 were able to provide the 600 students in the course with a learning opportunity that is often challenging in classes of this scale. Rather than take a multiple-choice midterm, the students were instead required to analyze a data set and work in groups to generate a poster presentation.

        “There were [several main] drivers [for modifying the course],” Stix said. “Is there a way to make a very large class not simply a lecture class? The other drive was to [find ways to avoid] the ‘passive learning’ [approach of lectures, and allow] students to be more engaged by working in groups."

        Stix acknowledged that in the past, he had employed clicker questions to help spur class participation in a course of such significant size. While this approach provoked a certain degree of participation, the novel changes added to ATOC 185 have since encouraged more substantial active learning among students.

        “It was really clear that a great majority of students were really proud of their posters,” Stix said. “It was really interesting to hear the different results and experiences.”

        Both POLI 450 and ATOC 185 serve as strong examples for turning points in teaching across campus. Although the professors involved emphasized the necessity of retaining lectures as a critical teaching tool, they are also changing the classroom experience by integrating new technologies into their courses.

        These novel approaches, however, hardly stop at the edge of the classroom. In addition to providing students with enhanced learning experiences, new teaching methods are pushing students to generate ideas outside of their courses to contribute to current research.

        McGill’s Microbiology and Immunology Department is pioneering one of the first crowdsourcing initiatives in Canada to uncover new antibiotics deep within the soil. One of the growing problems within the human health care system is the rise of bacteria that have developed defence mechanisms against current antibiotics. As such, companies are in desperate need of new antibiotics—a need that the department is actively responding to through its crowdsourcing approach.

        Associate Professor Samantha Gruenheid spearheaded the initiative with the assistance of Claire Trottier, an education specialist and pedagogic advisor for undergraduate MIMM courses. By partnering with a program known as the Small World Initiative (SWI) at Yale, they redesigned the introductory microbiology lab course MIMM 212 to provide students with an opportunity to design their own experiments, while contributing to developing research on new antibiotic compounds.

        “I liked that it dealt with a real world problem of antibiotic resistance,” Gruenheid said. “That can make the students really excited [….] It isn’t a cookbook course, but is giving students freedom to develop a project more on their own.”

“[Even though] the purpose of this course was to introduce us students to the microbiology lab, we learned much more than just basic microbiology techniques,” Afeich said. “I found the SWI interesting mostly because it was built around our own research and our own data.”

        Like the former design for MIMM 212, the purpose of the course is to teach undergraduate students different laboratory techniques for classifying and testing bacteria. However, unlike the former design—where students knew the predicted outcome of their experiments—the SWI provides undergraduates with the opportunity to explore.

        “I hoped that they would have the chance to feel that excitement,” Gruenheid said. “The excitement when you have a discovery in the lab and know you’re the only person that knows that. That experience can be lacking from traditional laboratory courses, but it is clearer in this one.”

        Naim Afeich, a U1 Microbiology and Immunology student, echoed Gruenheid’s sentiments, explaining that the course pushed students beyond the normal expectations of a laboratory course to actually contributing to research.

        “[Even though] the purpose of this course was to introduce us students to the microbiology lab, we learned much more than just basic microbiology techniques,” Afeich said. “I found the SWI interesting mostly because it was built around our own research and our own data.”

        With the new course design, MIMM 212 students now spend a semester collecting soil samples from their local environments and testing them in the laboratory to determine whether they produce antimicrobial compounds. According to Tyler Cannon, the U2 Microbiology and Immunology student who helped develop the SWI program over the summer within the Gruenheid lab, the approach taken by this course enables students to propel antibiotic research at a significantly faster pace than in the past.

        “It’s not new, looking in the soil for antibiotics,” he said. “The really novel thing here is crowdsourcing. We’re taking techniques that were developed for higher labs and simplifying them into something that anyone from an introductory lab course can do. Now that it is simplified, we don’t have five people working on it, but 104 at McGill and thousands counting the other SWI partnerships.”

        Over the summer, Cannon tested 52 different soil isolates and characterized five antibiotic-producing bacteria through his own research. Following the course this past Fall semester, students identified hundreds of additional species, from which Gruenheid saved 100 different bacterial samples that produced particularly interesting and promising antibiotic compounds. She plans to continue this initiative by further characterizing these strains in the future, in addition to running the revamped version of MIMM 212 for subsequent years to come.

        “I am really interested and committed to take it further,” Gruenheid said. “I don’t want to stop with things just stored in the freezer.”

        Cannon shared Gruenheid’s enthusiasm. He acknowledged that MIMM 212 was a great first step for increasing undergraduate contributions to research through a course, rather than through lab work outside of a program.

        “We’re sending the message to students that they can do this, and that they [have the potential] to do anything,” Cannon said.

        These recent developments in learning, therefore, push the boundaries of what’s possible not only with technology, but also through student contribution. The innovation of a decade ago has continued to take place on campus through the restructuring of traditionally taught courses.

        “Right now, the atmosphere within the Microbiology and Immunology Department is such that individual professors will be inspired to take the plunge, as they see the other professors successfully doing it in their courses,” said Gruenheid.