The prettiest campus in Canada?

I was at the Western Conference on Science Education on July 10-11. I gave a a public lecture on designing teaching for 21st century learners, and met with senior administrators and learning technology support staff to discuss strategies for online learning.

Western University

Western University’s full name is the University of Western Ontario, although in fact it is in the Ontario town of London, which is in South Eastern Ontario – just look at the map. However, it is 200 kms south-west of Toronto, which seems to be the geographical marker for Ontario. Nevertheless, it was odd for me to travel east for over 4,000 kilometres to find Canada’s western university! That’s Canada, eh?

More seriously, Western is ranked among the best universities across Ontario and Canada for its research intensity and education quality. Founded in 1878, it has approximately 30,000 students. According to a recent study by Contact North, Western has approximately 30 online courses, mainly offered through its Continuing Studies department, so it is a minor player to date in online learning in Canada. However, an increasing number of faculty are beginning to incorporate online elements into their classroom teaching, including some ‘flipped’ classes, and there is a growing interest among faculty and the senior administration in developing a more coherent and expansive approach to technology-enabled learning.

In a later post, I will discuss some of the common issues Canadian universities are trying to address as online learning starts penetrating to the core of the university’s activities, and Western itself is in the process of addressing many of these issues.

The conference

Although I have two sons who are professional scientists, I don’t have a science background myself (I was kicked out of my high school science courses for fooling around all the time in lab classes.) This may explain why I have a bit of a bias about science, feeling that an intrinsically fascinating subject is often badly taught. In particular, I am very interested in the challenge of teaching science online, so I was grateful to have the opportunity to attend several of the conference sessions.

Integrated science teaching

The most interesting session for me by far was one that had nothing to do with technology. This was a keynote from Dr. Carolyn Eyles, the Director of McMaster University’s Integrated Science Program (iSci). McMaster has radically transformed undergraduate science teaching through this program. The Honours Integrated Science Program has been developed to

‘enhance student engagement and learning in science using an inter-disciplinary framework and self-directed, research-based learning strategies. Much of the instruction in the iSci program is team-based and focuses on the process of helping students develop as effective learners rather than on ‘teaching.’ Beginning in year 1, students work in research teams, guided by instructors, to investigate a range of interdisciplinary and societally relevant issues.’

Students have a mix of core and elective routes through the program, enabling them to increasingly specialize in a particular discipline (or topic area) as they progress through the four year program, enabling successful graduates to go on to grad school. The iSci program culminates with a mandatory Honours Thesis during students’ fourth year and an end of program symposium, organized by the students, where the teams present their research findings through posters and presentations. Research topics include the mission to Mars, water pollution on campus, cancer research, sustainable energy, drugs and addiction, and wine-making, involving professors from biology, physics, chemistry, math, earth sciences, and neuroscience and psychology. A student perspective can be found halfway through this YouTube video.

I have to say that if science had been taught like that when I was young, I would have really enjoyed it. However, it should be noted that class size is quite small, and students are carefully selected.

It would be very difficult in my opinion to deliver a program such as this fully online, although of course online learning is an essential part as students do much of their bibliographical research online, and indeed collected data from NASA and other sources online. The program is being carefully evaluated (the program is now in its fourth year) and I found it interesting that the one area where students reported being less competent was in their computer skills, so maybe a touch more emphasis on online work might help.

Teaching science at a distance

Another session I really found interesting was Dietmar Kennepohl’s presentation on open science -teaching and learning for the next generation. Dietmar is a Professor of Chemistry at Athabasca University, an open and online university. He described the various imaginative ways in which Athabasca is tackling science at a distance, from the use of video, simulations, home kits, remote labs and face-to-face sessions, using a detailed instructional and pedagogical design process to identify what is done best through which medium. A free copy of his book:  Kennepohl, D. and Shaw, L. (2011) Accessible Elements: Teaching Online and at a Distance Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, can be downloaded from here. I will be doing a review of this in a later post.


I was particularly struck by the enthusiasm, even passion, for teaching science among the participants (but as someone said, they represented less than 5% of the science instructors across Canada). One question that came up constantly was how to overcome the inertia and lack of interest in teaching among many of the participants’ colleagues. One answer came up during the conference and that is to make teaching science much more fun, both for students and the instructors. This means redesigning science teaching in the way MacMaster has done. This will be essential if we are to close the gap between supply and demand for science graduates, and it is clear that online learning has an important role to play in such re-design. Indeed, online learning is much more likely to be successfully integrated if it is part of an overall redesign of the curriculum, rather than just adding it on to existing content and teaching methods.


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