Undergrad students gain a new perspective on education research

Originally published on UAlberta News.

Two undergraduate Elementary Education students were recipients of the University of Alberta’s undergraduate summer research awards, providing them with chance to work alongside professors in their fields for four months.

Both Marcus DeWitt and Stephanie Shannon received the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Research Award, enabling them to gain valuable experience conducting academic research while working with faculty members on their projects.


Working with math games: Stephanie Shannon

Stephanie Shannon, a second-year Education after-degree student, worked with Janelle McFeetors on a research project that uses games to help teach elementary school students learn math. The project showed Shannon that math learning experiences don’t need to be limited to the classic worksheets that many students dread.

“Kids can learn from hands-on experience or simple games,” says Shannon. “The games approach goes a lot deeper that you think it would. In the future, I would definitely incorporate games into the math-learning experience in my classroom.

Shannon started the summer by going out into a grade 4 and 5 split class, working with the students while they were playing the games. Her insights into the students’ changing mindset caught McFeetor’s attention.

“After we completed a classroom intervention and conducting interviews with grade 4 and 5 students, she pointed out how the students’ productive disposition grew as they were learning,” says McFeetors.

“What was interesting is this coincided with professional articles I had recently read identifying this as an under-developed idea in mathematics education.”

Later in the summer, Shannon moved into data analysis and transcribing notes. In the final month, Shannon tried her hand at a new skill– website design for learnmathwithgames.com. Not only did the project help Shannon develop new skills and ideas for her to use in her own future classrooms, and open her mind to possibility of doing more academic research in the future.

“This experience was  much different than what I experienced when doing research in my first degree, she says.

“With this project, I went to the classroom and met students. You get to have that personal connection with them, but you’re still doing research. It’s a great feeling to know that they aren’t just subjects. You actually get to know them and see how they have evolved.”


Constructing timelines: Marcus DeWitt

Fourth-year Education student Marcus DeWitt spent the summer working with Lindsay Gibson on a project that saw grade 11 students creating interactive timelines about Canada’s history using flash cards. DeWitt applied for the research assistantship in hopes the project would give him an idea of what future opportunities in academia might look like.

“I’ve considered going onto do graduate work after I’m done my undergrad and I thought this would be a good introduction while giving me good experience,” says DeWitt.

“I’ve gotten to see data collection first hand– how you’d analyze, interpret and record it. It’s a pretty big part of the research-aspect of graduate work.”

On top of seeing how data collection works in an research project, DeWitt also learned more about students’ perceptions about Canadian history and how that impacts their engagement with the curriculum.

“At first it catches you off-guard, but after hearing 30 grade 11 students say the same type of thing, you realize the misconceptions they might have on certain aspects and topics,” explains DeWitt.

“You can definitely tell if the kids were on that day when you listen to the audio recordings. If it’s an issue that hits close to home, it’ll spark a ten minute conversation.”

Throughout the project DeWitt put his keen attention to detail to work, impressing Gibson.

“He identified key deductive codes from the interviews which has been very helpful in the data analysis process,” said Gibson. “His insights into the progression of students’ thinking as the study developed were very beneficial and have helped me develop next steps for this pilot project.”

Seeing the project’s gamification of Canadian history and how students engaged with it has influenced how DeWitt plans to engage his students.

“I’ve been thinking about Dr. Gibson’s approach to this project and I think it’s a great idea how he took a topic that a lot of kids might think is boring and made it into a challenge of sorts and make it fun,” says DeWitt. “It’s definitely something I’d look into doing in my classroom in the future.”

The Roger S. Smith Award is open to continuing undergraduate students. Information on how to apply can be found through the Registrar’s Office.

A Eulogy for Rocco — Sometimes I Think

My friend Thomas wrote this beautiful piece on his pup Rocco. Grab the tissues and read on.❤

It’s taken me a while to be able to write anything about Rocco. On top of a profound sense of loss, something else rendered me inarticulate: some form of what I can only call trauma. Rocco’s last 24 hours were awful. I watched helplessly as seizure after seizure wracked his failing body. He fought so […]

via A Eulogy for Rocco — Sometimes I Think

Students get creative in summer course

Originally published on UAlberta News.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

When asked to bring their favourite projects for the group photo, instructor Don McPherson said that all the students were his favourite project.

This summer a group of future and current Career and Technology Foundations teachers honed their skills in the workshop.

The course, taught by Don McPherson, gave students hands-on experience in developing projects they could take back to their classrooms. From making end tables to gumball machines, this was a new experience for some.

“I’ve never touched any construction or woodwork, so this is a lot of firsts for me, but I’m having lots of fun and making a lot of cool things” said Jamie Lambert-Brown, a foods teacher.

More than having fun, the students are also learning how to teach

“I’ve learned how to make meaningful learning opportunities,” said Ryan Siemens, a future mechanics teacher.

“In this course, we learned how to connect projects to occupations, as well as other curriculum, so the students are learning, interested and engaged.”

Check out the photo gallery below to see more of the students’ work. 

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Secondary Education welcomes new Social Studies professor

Originally published on UAlberta News

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

From PhD student to faculty member, Cathryn van Kessel continues her research into teaching tough topics to students.

Understanding and conceptualizing evil when learning about horrific events like genocide and war is a topic new Secondary Education faculty member Cathryn van Kessel has wrestled with since she discovered the extent of her family’s role in the Dutch Resistance during World War II.

“My grandmother’s family had resistance fighters, including the man who became my grandfather, in the basement or their barn when occupying Nazi troops would stop at their house while on their rounds,” explained van Kessel.

“I can’t imagine what it is like to make that decision. No matter what you choose to do, you’re putting your family at risk.”

The perception that youth have of the dark chapters of human history is something that van Kessel started exploring academically when she was a high school teacher covering “really disheartening things” such as the Holocaust and the Holodomor. This experience forced her to re-evaluate how she taught these topics.

“I wanted to teach for social justice and about these horrible events in history so we don’t repeat them,” she said.

“I wanted to make them feel, and not just hear cold statistics, so I’d show them things like the original footage from Auschwitz, thinking I was doing a great job. Instead I was destroying any hope they had for the future.”

Rather than repeating the same teaching method for future students, van Kessel started looking into other ways to present the heavy material and learning more about students’ conceptualization of evil.

“I was concerned about how we teach genocide, but at the heart of it, I was more interested in the idea of evil and how that can either shut down or open up thinking.”

As a PhD student, van Kessel kept busy working on this research, even presenting it in the UAlberta Three Minute Thesis competition. As a faculty member she plans to continue researching into youth’s perception of evil in social studies curriculum by collaborating with colleagues who focus on terror management theory, wisdom traditions, world views and bringing it to an educational perspective.

Transitioning from graduate student to faculty member

One of the unique parts of van Kessel’s transition from graduate student to faculty member is that she made the switch at the same institution and in the same department.  She considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to remain at UAlberta and continue working with those who supported her as a graduate student.

“I keep pinching myself to make sure it’s real,” she joked.

“I just want to make sure I’m making everyone proud. It’s such an honour to be counted as their colleague and they mean a lot to me already.”

One change in particular that van Kessel is excited for is the opportunity to pay it forward to the graduate students she will work with in the future.

“It’s fun for me to think of mentoring people through the process that is still so fresh in my mind,” van Kessel said.

“I think back to when I started my doctoral degree and all the skills I built. I hope I can give them all the great experiences I had when I was mentored by other people in the department.”

Mentoring future educators isn’t new to van Kessel, however. When she was a graduate student, she transitioned from teaching high school students into educating their future teachers. Something that always surprised van Kessel’s students is her use of diverse genres of music in the classroom.

“I’ll use metal and punk, but I’ll also use really sweet, gentle and melodic stuff like The Weepies. At the end of the semester I always get asked  ‘What do you actually listen to? Is it Public Enemy? Is it Rage Against the Machine? Is it The Weepies?’”

Still, educating the next generation of social studies teachers is a task van Kessel does not take lightly.

“In some ways it is more high stakes since you have a bigger ripple which can either be a really nice thing, or a really horrifying thing depending on how it goes, but I love it,” she said.

“It’s exciting to hear how these future teachers are wrestling with the these tough topics, and telling them that it’s okay for them to be grappling with those things and how they might bring that into the classroom.”

Northern students dig into science

Originally posted on UAlberta News.

Education professor Jerine Pegg holds a tiny red wiggler. Pegg brought a box of the earthworms to a group of students in Nunavut to keep their composting project alive.

Education professor Jerine Pegg holds a tiny red wiggler. Pegg brought a box of the earthworms to a group of students in Nunavut to keep their composting project alive.

Not everyone would take a box of worms through airport security for the benefit of students learning about composting in Canada’s North, but that’s exactly what Jerine Pegg did this past spring.

Pegg, a professor in the Faculty of Education, travelled more than 2,360 kilometres to Arnaqjuaq School in Hall Beach, Nunavut, to evaluate a Let’s Talk Science program focused on supporting science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in northern communities. When Pegg heard the students’ red wiggler worms had died, she packed more with her so they could start composting again.

Working worms

“The school’s composting efforts will turn organic waste such as banana peels or paper into nutrient-rich soil for the gardening project,” explains Pegg.

“The worms will help speed up the process of decomposition in order to have good quality soil to use when school starts in the fall. This is important in a community where little vegetation grows and potting soil is very expensive to purchase.”

As a professor focusing on science education, Pegg believes the best way for students to learn is for teachers to bring realistic, hands-on science into their classrooms, even if it means taking local red wigglers onboard a plane with her.

“While I was at the school, on multiple occasions I walked past the classroom with the worm bin and students were hunched over it, watching the worms, spraying them with water, holding them, observing their movements and asking questions.”

Let’s Talk Science

Pegg originally became involved with Let’s Talk Science—an award-winning, national charitable organization—four years ago when she was looking for a context to continue her research on teacher-scientist partnerships. This trip was the first of a series of case studies she is conducting to examine the impact of these programs in various schools in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia and northern Alberta.

Over the past two years, Let’s Talk Science has been visiting Arnaqjuaq School running in-class activities with students and workshops with teachers. As a part of one of these workshops, teachers at the school decided to start a school-wide gardening project by composting and growing a few plants. Next year the school plans to grow plants in every classroom and eventually build a greenhouse.

The power of scientific inquiry

Beyond inspiring scientific thought and curiosity, the program is having an impact in other subject areas. For example, the school’s business teacher hopes to use the project to engage students in calculating the cost of growing the produce in the greenhouse versus buying it from the Northern Store.

For Pegg, this shows precisely why it is important to encourage students to get their hands dirty with authentic science.

“Science education can develop critical thinking skills, such as asking questions, making observations, inferring, analyzing and drawing conclusions,” she says. “Understanding science is also important for many decisions that students will make in their current and future lives, such as decisions about their health and their environment.”

Weaving Indigenous culture into elementary music curriculum

Originally posted in Illuminate – June 2016.  A special thank you to the workshop facilitators and organizers: Nicole Schutz, Laurel Nikolai, Jeremy Albert, Holly Yuzicapi and Dr. Kathy Robinson. All photos by k.barnes.

Dr. Randy Wimmer (Dean of Education), Holly Yuzicapi, Jeremy Albert, Laurel Nikolai, Nicole Schutz and Dr. Kathy Robinson

Dr. Randy Wimmer (Dean of Education), Holly Yuzicapi, Jeremy Albert, Laurel Nikolai, Nicole Schutz and Dr. Kathy Robinson

A two-part professional development workshop focused on integrating First Nations, Métis and Inuit music and culture into elementary music education had a successful launch at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education this June and is expected to return to campus in the fall 2016 term.

At the recent workshop, current Education graduate student Nicole Schutz and alumna Laurel Nikolai (MEd ‘09) showed more than 20 local music teachers and 10 current students in the elementary education program different ways to weave Indigenous music and culture into their kindergarten to Grade 6 classrooms by making flutes and teaching them how to play songs.

Learning by doing

The hands-on workshop encouraged participants to decorate and play their flutes, much like they would with their students. Schutz, who is Métis herself, said that making the workshop as interactive as possible was a deliberate choice.

“We move, sing and dance all the time with our students,” said Schutz. “Why not do it with the First music of Canada? We want them to feel it and know it through the way it is supposed to be done.”

Both Schutz and Nikolai’s personal experiences teaching music in schools with large First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations provided a frame of reference when designing the workshop. It also illustrated the need to educate teachers on how to integrate First Nations, Métis and Inuit content and perspectives into the curriculum.

“As music teachers and elementary teachers, we learn through doing it and experiencing the songs and dance. We really want to connect to this through stories and [enable students to] have their own stories of making the instruments that they are putting love and time into, then pass these stories on,” said Nikolai.

“It is our job as educators to do as much as we can, share as much as we can, find accessible resources and people who can pass teachings and experience onto us so we can be comfortably educated to share this with our students,” she adds.


Participants learning to play songs on their flutes

Responding to the Calls to Action

Workshop participants point to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’sfinal report, released last year, as well as the provincial government’s promise to focus more on including Indigenous culture and history into Alberta’s curriculum as two reasons—among many—why professional development like this is needed.

“With the release of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this workshop is a response to some of those calls by learning more about Indigenous ways of knowing and being which will translate to their students,” explained event collaborator Jeremy Albert, who is a First Nations, Métis and Inuit consultant with Edmonton Public Schools (EPSB).

“We’re looking to build from here and get these teachings into our schools so our First Nations, Métis and Inuit and non-Indigenous students can be exposed to this education.”

The importance of good materials

As well as receiving a lesson in making, painting and playing Indigenous flutes, workshop participants also received a walk-through of an Edukit for music teachers, developed by EPSB. The kit consists of detailed lesson plans including songs, dances, picture books, poems, and stories that can be used throughout the school year.

“We’re crying out for materials and understanding to bring this music to our students,” said Kathy Robinson, associate professor of elementary education and workshop facilitator.

All of the workshop facilitators expressed a desire for the workshop’s positive impact to spread to classrooms across Edmonton. Event collaborator and EPSB First Nations, Métis and Inuit consultant Holly Yuzicapi explained that learning about First Nations, Métis and Inuit art and culture could teach students another way to express themselves.

“Every culture has forms of expression—art, music, singing, dance—it’s really people having the ability to share feelings and stories,” said Yuzicapi.

“You hear people say ‘I’m dancing for healing’, or there is history and significance behind certain songs or stories. When we turn to those things, we are acknowledging expression,” she explained. “When we deal with traumatic things in our life, we can turn to art to help us express feelings, but we don’t teach it that way. When you think about all of our cultural songs, the songwriter is sharing their feelings. So, technically everyone is a songwriter, a dancer and an artist.”

The EPSB Edukit will be available for loan at the H.T. Coutts Education Library. Part two of the workshop, to be led by Elder Francis Whiskeyjack, is expected to take place at UAlberta in the fall term and will focus on drumming and drum-making. To learn more about the course, contact Laurel Nikolai or Nicole Schutz.

Taking out the trash at UAlberta

Originally posted in Sustainability eNews Vol. 71 – April 2016.  A special thank you to the Students’ Union Facilities and Operations Team and the folks at Energy Management and Sustainable Operations.

All photos, graphics and text by K.Barnes.

Gerry, Leila and Jessie taking part in the waste audit

Gerry, Leila and Jessie taking part in the waste audit

Once it leaves your hand and enters the container, you probably don’t give waste a second thought, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to ensure the university’s waste is being recycled or composted correctly. At home, a lot of what is accidentally thrown away can still be sorted out at the City of Edmonton Waste Management Centre, but it doesn’t work like that at the university.

“If people put things in the wrong bin, we have to reach into the bin and put it in the right one.” – Gerry, Students’ Union Facilities and Operations

“If you don’t know where something is supposed to go, it’s okay to ask us where to put items.” – Emma, Students’ Union Facilities and Operations

The University of Alberta is part of the Institutional, Commercial and Industrial sector, which means it is not part of the municipal waste system you have at home. Instead, the university must have its own waste contractors who collect and process waste and recycling. Someone who lives in a residence in Edmonton pays taxes which go toward municipal services like waste management. The university’s contract requires waste materials to be separated correctly, or it all goes to the landfill. This also means that the material in the university’s “landfill” stream does not get sorted further after it leaves campus – it goes straight to a landfill.

Gerry and Emma collect waste, recyclables and organics from the SUB food court

Emma and Gerry collect and label the bags of waste in SUB’s food court, the first step of the waste audit.

“Landfills are designed to not allow things to break down easily, or liquids to leach out. They are a highly anaerobic environment. Even a piece of food waste, which can compost quite easily, will sit there for years in a landfill.”

– Shannon Leblanc, Sustainability Coordinator, Energy Management & Sustainable Operations

Keeping as many compostable or recyclable items out of the landfill as possible is an institutional sustainability priority. For example, decomposing organics in landfills produce a gas which is composed primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. By keeping compostable items out of the landfill, the university can reduce its ecological footprint. With this in mind, the University of Alberta’s draft Sustainability Plan  has set a target to divert 90 per cent of waste from the landfill by 2020.

Getting to Zero Waste

Purity Chart final

Data collected by EMSO and BGS staff. Purity measures the percentage of items correctly discarded. In SUB, more than 70 per cent of waste in the landfill stream could be recycled or composted instead. This means that many items are being sent to the landfills that don’t have to go there.

To meet that target, the university is piloting Zero Waste stations in the Students’ Union Building, HUB Mall and Lister Centre. These stations move the university from a six-stream system to a simpler four-stream system which captures mixed paper, recyclables, organics and landfill waste.  Once these stations are working, the system will be expanded to the rest of North Campus.

To evaluate the new system, UAlberta’s Energy Management and Sustainable Operations and Buildings and Grounds Services perform regular waste audits to get concrete data about how well the Zero Waste stations are working. That means the waste is collected, labelled and sorted to see how many of the items are correctly disposed of, and see what items cause trouble.

Shannon, Leila and Jessie of EMSO

Shannon, Leila and Jessie of EMSO

Next time you need to toss an item, check out the containers to see where it belongs and help the university keep recyclables and compostable items out of the landfill.

infographic - Waste Audit items final