At the end of September, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) announced the winners of their prestigious teaching award for the 2017-2018 academic year. The award created in 1973, recognizes the outstanding contributions made by professors in post-secondary institutions across Ontario. This year, five professors received the honor including UTM’s very own Fiona Rawle, an associate professor teaching stream in the department of biology.

As a high school student, Rawle always loved studying science, asking questions, finding answers, and learning about the stories of mistakes and failures within the scientific community. She explains that many of the successes in science, like penicillin and pace makers, began with moments of failure. Rawle’s curiosity and passion for science lead her to pursue a Ph.D. in Pathology and Molecular Medicine at Queen’s University. She later joined the UTM faculty in 2010.

“I’m very concerned about problems society faces that are based in science like climate change, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and access to clean water. After having kids, I really started to reflect about science and how I could make a difference,” Rawle explains. “I started to shift and apply my interests to science education and the best ways to teach and learn science.”

Currently, Rawle’s projects focus on active-learning and the difficulty in overcoming scientific misconceptions. Through her research, Rawle investigates the barriers that hinder academic success in diverse student populations, and explores the misconceptions people have about antibiotic resistant bacteria and how those misconceptions change during an individual’s educational journey.

For one project in particular, Rawle is collaborating with Nicole Laliberte, an assistant professor in the department of geography, to examine “productive failure.” According to Rawle, failure functions as a good tool for teaching because students learn the value of failure and master ways to bounce back from unsuccessful moments.

“I try to model failure in class. I’m very open about mistakes I’ve made and I think that’s really important,” Rawle says. “With social media, I think people, in general, feel a lot of pressure to present a near-perfect image which is not based in reality. So, I try to model that when I teach because science is messy, creative, and it’s not always perfect.”

Rawle typically teaches BIO152: Introduction to Evolution and Evolutionary Genetics and BIO476: Molecular Basis of Disease. She bases all of her lectures on “active-learning,” a technique that allows students to be actively involved in the learning process. In BIO152, a class of approximately 500 students, Rawle teaches DNA and nucleotide structure by asking that all of the students stand up and form a DNA chain around the classroom. Rawle explains that this activity helps students understand bonds and molecular structure by witnessing the physical bonds within the student chain.

In addition to this, Rawle implements a lot of “case-based learning,” where she makes connections between course material and the real world.

“I try to foster a learning community of engagement so students come to class expecting to participate and be involved. We do a lot of activities, we use response systems in class, students are always solving problems and always looking at misconception questions,” Rawle says.

When asked about her favourite moment from her teaching career thus far, Rawle explains that she enjoys seeing the spark of curiosity within her students and how they develop over their university experience.

I love when students come back and see me five years after they graduated and they tell me about their journey and what they’re doing now. I love seeing their growth as people and as scientists,” Rawle says.

Approaching teaching in ways that betters student engagement has not only won Rawle the coveted OCUFA award, but has made her lectures more enjoyable and educating for her students. By employing active-learning techniques in the classroom, teachers provide their students with an environment more conducive to their learning.

“I’m a scientist at heart and a scientist by training, so I want to teach in ways that are shown to be effective. If students are engaged and they’re actively involved in their learning, they learn better, so why would we teach in any other way? The data shows that this is the most effective way to teach and it helps students learn better but also have a better recall for a longer amount of time,” she says. “I love my lectures, I love teaching. I’m really lucky to work here.”

Rawle will be honoured at the OCUFA award ceremony hosted by CBC’s Nana aba Duncan on October 20th.

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