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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.