MRU chemistry professor honoured with 3M National Teaching Fellowship

Supporting students in learning drives Brett McCollum

Brett McCollum in an Active Learning Classroom at MRU's Riddell Library and Learning Centre

Professor Brett McCollum, PhD, in an Active Learning Classroom at Mount Royal's Riddell Library and Learning Centre.

For students and colleagues who have benefited from his dedication to teaching, it will come as no surprise that Brett McCollum, PhD, professor of chemistry at Mount Royal University, has been named to a prestigious group of university educators in Canada.

He joins more than 300 recipients named since 1986 to the Council of 3M National Teaching Fellows, an award that has been likened to the Stanley Cup of university teaching. Recently unveiled in Maclean's magazine, McCollum is one of ten post-secondary teachers from across the country to receive this honour in 2019 for excellence in educational leadership and undergraduate teaching.

"Brett embodies what Mount Royal University is all about in terms of putting teaching and the student experience first," says Lesley Brown, provost and vice-president, Academic, at Mount Royal. "We are thrilled that his groundbreaking work in the scholarship of teaching and learning has been recognized in this way."

McCollum, who is already a Nexen Scholar of Teaching and Learning, an Apple Distinguished Educator, a software developer and an education columnist, focuses his research on the effective uses of technology for teaching and learning, chemistry language learning, open education resources and research partnerships with students. His teaching areas include general chemistry, organic, inorganic, physical, nuclear, and spectroscopy.

McCollum is also the recipient of the Alberta Colleges and Institutes Faculties Association Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award (2012), Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award (2015), Mount Royal Faculty Association Teaching Award (2016) and Mount Royal University Distinguished Faculty Award (2017). As well, he has served as the acting academic director of the Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Last year he was elected as the chair of SoTL Canada, a national organization dedicated to the advancement of scholarship of teaching and learning.

The Council of 3M National Teaching Fellows is a community of award-winning teachers who are lifetime members of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE). The Council shares the aims of the STLHE, advises the 3M National Teaching and Student Fellowships Program Coordinators and undertakes projects that enhance teaching and learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.



Chemists, McCollum says, are experimentalists by training. This has led him to an evidence-based approach to teaching and learning.

"I see SoTL as a systematic inquiry into what works, what is possible and what is happening when faculty use their expertise to support students in their learning. I've always been interested in teaching and how to enhance learning."

Research assistant and student Darlene Skagen started working with McCollum in 2015 during the second year of her Bachelor of Science, Cellular and Molecular Biology. She explains that the goal of the research is to develop students' professional identity, communication confidence in chemistry, content mastery and appreciation for chemistry as an international language.

"I have worked with Brett since then on several SoTL projects in chemistry education," Skagen says. "During my time working with him, he has been a mentor to me and has encouraged me to grow as a student and as a researcher, notably in his confidence in me to produce quality research as a primary author and to take the lead on a new project. Brett has the right combination of constructive criticism and allowing me to work independently, which has resulted in my successes as an undergraduate researcher and student."

While completing his PhD at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, McCollum used the particle accelerator at TRIUMF, Canada's national facility for particle and nuclear physics in Vancouver, but he began to develop an interest in teaching and learning before coming to Mount Royal in 2008.

Because his PhD was a cross-section of different fields using physical chemistry, organic chemistry and radiochemistry, he learned how to pull things together from adjoining fields "and I've used that same idea in my practice where I'm doing scholarship of teaching and learning."

McCollum was one of three faculty invited to test-drive Mount Royal's Academic Development Centre's (ADC) new Active Learning Classroom at the Riddell Library and Learning Centre. The ADC designed and brought this specialized classroom into being as part of their Active Learning Initiative, and works to support and promote faculty to attain their personal bests in teaching and learning through the provision of curriculum, eLearning, and other educational technology supports.

The MRU Active Learning Classroom holds 36 students in teams of six, and McCollum saw the experience as an opportunity to enact his belief in shared leadership structures. The instructor workstation is in the centre of the room. A system of microphones and speakers ensures that all students can hear the instructor, no matter what direction they are facing. McCollum stresses leading from the middle sometimes involves drawing attention inward, but most of the time focuses out toward others. McCollum calls the room a physical representation of leading from the middle. The instructor is able to move between small-group discussions and provide support where needed.

"The Active Learning Classroom in the RLLC is an amazing space," he says, recalling that a few years ago students would arrive to his classes wearing headphones and plug back in as soon as class was over. There was little engagement with each other, but he knew they wanted and needed more.

"Clearly, because they've chosen to come to a university, they want human interaction and I can facilitate that. I found that the Active Learning Classroom was a great space for me to model with them, and for them to model for each other, different strategies for engaging in course material so they can improve their success."

Using the classroom for the third-year science and politics of nuclear energy course he teaches with Duane Bratt, PhD, chair of the Department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies, McCollum has seen students' mid-term average improve by 18 per cent.

In his organic chemistry classes, meanwhile, McCollum tries to show students that it is a focus on problem solving, not memorization, that will help them achieve a coveted A.

"Convincing students of their role in the classroom is one of the biggest challenges I have, and the biggest responsibility."

Mount Royal has a rich tradition of teaching. The individual student experience has been at the heart of the institution's face to the world. Students are not considered numbers and professors have earned a reputation for knowing and supporting them in their educational development. While honoured to receive the fellowship, it represents for McCollum far more than his own efforts.

"The Mount Royal community is passionate about teaching, passionate about student learning and I'm excited to be a representative from Mount Royal to a national conversation about teaching and learning."

Jonathan Withey, DPhil, dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology at MRU, points to McCollum's "extraordinary energy" directed at teaching.

"He has a dedicated curiosity about pedagogy, and he brings imagination and courage in probing all elements of the learning process. This has inspired Brett to question everything from the fate of lectures and textbooks to the nature of problem solving. He is an individual willing to tamper with the style and content of scientific education, such that the overall quality of the science itself might be improved.

"This is a proud moment for the entire University community."

McCollum encourages other faculty to "know why you teach the way you do." Many of the available SoTL journals, he says, are written for researchers, yes, but also for faculty and students to learn from.

"Every faculty member and every student at Mount Royal can engage with the scholarship of teaching and learning. They don't have to conduct research to benefit from it."


Mount Royal's Academic Development Centre promotes teaching excellence and innovation by providing a range of services and expertise to faculty and staff, while the Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning supports research into understanding student learning, innovations in teaching practice and transformation of higher education.


Feb. 11, 2019 — Peter Glenn

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