Winning teachers open minds, provoke ideas

by Hilary Thomson
Staff writer

Provocative, innovative and risky are the words that spring to mind as Killam Teaching Prize winner Lee Gass describes his 35 years as an educator.

An associate professor of Zoology and a faculty member since 1974, Gass is one of 23 faculty members to receive University Killam Teaching Prizes during Spring Congregation.

"It's not about curriculum or methods -- it's about helping students to be open to what they don't know," says Gass.

As well as teaching first-year Biology, Gass is one of the designers and instructors of both the Science One program, a multidisciplinary intensive alternative to the standard first year in Science and the new Integrated Science degree program.

Both programs aim to help students understand the connectedness of scientific knowledge.

"For a while I felt like the Lone Ranger because my ideas about breaking down traditional boundaries between disciplines weren't widely shared," he says.

The Integrated Science course called "The Size of Things," which Gass co-instructed, exemplifies the novel and comprehensive approach to scientific notions.

The course looked at the consequences of size or scale on a broad range of processes from biological to cosmic.

Participants in both programs, including faculty, are encouraged to risk exposing their ignorance through questions in a highly interactive atmosphere characterized by both rigour and trust. Students are free to air concerns and challenge what and how they are learning.

"My role is not to teach -- it's to accept responsibility for people learning," says Gass.

He says he got into teaching for all the wrong reasons, reacting to the conformity, confines and disrespect for students he saw in his own early education.

"There had to be a better way," he says. "Once students are released from the external pressures of the traditional system, the internal pressure of the excitement to learn just about bursts out of them."

Gass has presented his ideas about integrated and interactive learning to educators around the world.

When he is not in the classroom, Gass researches the behaviour of hummingbirds and recharges his creativity by carving stone sculptures.

Killam Teaching Prize winners are selected by their faculties on the basis of recommendations from students and colleagues. Each winner receives $5,000 from university endowment sources.

Energy and creativity are hallmarks of the recipients' teaching style.

Each class taught by English Prof. Eva-Marie Kröller seems to have a "delirious inner life of its own" according to one student.

A dynamo and a powerhouse of awe-inspiring and infectious energy is how colleagues and students describe Assoc. Prof. Steven Lee of the Dept. of History and the International Relations Program.

Presentations by Earth and Ocean Sciences Assoc. Prof. Bruce Buffett are said to be like jewels -- exquisitely crafted and glittering with value.

Religious Studies Assoc. Prof. Paul Mosca is known to turn his students into disciples by the sheer force of example with his charismatic teaching.

Students say Geography Prof. Derek Gregory's classes are singular performances for which he is impeccably prepared, bursting with enthusiasm and information.

Law Prof. Keith B. Farquhar's students call him a model of ideal lawyerly conduct who can take a difficult and complex subject and make it intelligible.

Other Killam Teaching Prize recipients for 1999 include:

Faculty of Agricultural Sciences: Art Bomke, Soil Science. Faculty of Applied Science: Greg Bond, Electrical and Computer Engineering; Sherry McKay, School of Architecture. Faculty of Arts: Bozena Karwowska, Slavic Program, Germanic Studies. Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration: Dan Gardiner, Marketing. Faculty of Dentistry: Christopher Wyatt, Oral Health Sciences. Faculty of Education: Deirdre Kelly, Educational Studies; Jolie Mayer-Smith, Curriculum Studies. Faculty of Forestry: John Nelson, Forest Resources Management. Faculty of Graduate Studies: David Ley, Geography. Faculty of Medicine: William A. Webber, Anatomy; Morris Pudek, Pathology; Karim A. Qayumi, Surgery. Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences: Wayne Riggs. Faculty of Science: Ian Cavers, Computer Science; Jaymie Matthews, Physics and Astronomy.