Teaching Fellow’s idea eases students into labs

Paul Mayne // Western NewsDeveloped by Medical Sciences E-learning Coordinator Sarah McLean, LaboraTREES lets third-year students “choose their own adventure” through online experimental simulations to gain ‘hands-on’ anatomy experience in a virtual laboratory environment, mimicking what they’ll actually be doing in the wet lab.

Sarah McLean has no problem with Medical Sciences students embracing failure over and over again. In fact, thanks to a teaching innovation of her creation, she encourages it.

“They can mess up the steps, do it in the wrong order, add the wrong thing and, while they’ll have a failed experiment, it won’t affect them in their actual lab,” said McLean, speaking of LaboraTREES, a Teaching Innovation Project she developed to give students a running start before heading into the actual lab.

“I wanted to make the lab experience a bit more comfortable, to take away a little more than I got from my undergraduate experience,” added the Medical Sciences E-learning Coordinator. “When I got to graduate school, it was a steep learning curve. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we give the students in their earlier years the opportunity?’”

Now in its second full year, LaboraTREES lets third-year students “choose their own adventure” through online experimental simulations to gain ‘hands-on’ anatomy experience in a virtual laboratory environment, mimicking what they’ll actually be doing in the wet lab.

It’s an idea that had a genesis within the Teaching Support Centre’s Teaching Fellows Program.

In its Strategic Mandate Agreement (2012), Western affirmed its commitment to student success and student focused teaching and learning by creating the Teaching Fellows Program. Since then, the university has supported one Teaching Fellow from each faculty who receives a three-year secondment, funding to conduct their teaching innovations and support from educational developers in the centre.

The goal of the program is to enhance teaching innovation and teaching quality by bringing together a cohort of outstanding Teaching Fellows – faculty members who will develop teaching innovation projects, perform research on the impact of those projects, and provide professional development opportunities in teaching in their faculties.

For McLean, the program has meant solving a problem she has seen for a long time.

“When I was a student, I was nervous going into a lab. I just memorized stuff and hoped I figured it out, but I never really knew if something went wrong or why it went wrong,” McLean explained. “(With LaboraTREES,) they get tutorials and feedback as to why something happened. Spend this time to mess up and figure it out. Then, when you get to class, you’ll have a better idea of what’s happening and be a little more sure on your feet.

“A lot of times in education research, people just ask, ‘Do their grades go up?’ I don’t think that’s always the most useful measure,” she said. “I want students to feel confident and comfortable in the lab when they go in, so they can learn and not be afraid of messing up.”

McLean has also created an online rat dissection simulation for a fourth-year Medical Sciences lab course and is in the process of developing a digital human kidney model to be used in concert with the rat simulation.

She has presented her work at a number of conferences and, just this past week, spoke on her idea at the World Conference on Online Learning in Toronto. She said it’s an idea other faculties and departments can adapt to their curriculum, such as helping medical students learn how to deal correctly with patients.

“I’m always interested in teaching, learning more and trying innovative things in the classroom,” McLean said. “It’s a simple idea that is mostly theoretical. I feel they (students) are more confident, more prepared and a lot more comfortable coming into the lab environment.”

FIVE NEW FELLOWS

Full-time faculty members from Engineering, Law, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Don Wright Faculty of Music and Social Science are encouraged to apply for one of five Teaching Fellow positions open starting May 1, 2018.

An information sessions for interested candidates will be held at 1:30 Nov. 14 and 12:30 Dec. 11 in the Teaching Support Centre, Room 122, The D. B. Weldon Library. Visit the Teaching Fellows website for more details.