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Nexen Scholars program celebrates unique research

As the 2013 Nexen Scholars wrap up their research and celebrate results, the Institute of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) recruits next batch of exceptional scholars

The Institute for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning’s (SoTL) annual Nexen Scholars program is getting ready to welcome their new crop of scholars (deadline for Mount Royal faculty to submit proposals is Dec. 1).

In the meantime, the University and the Institute celebrate the work of the 2013 scholars — research that has led to invitations to present at North American conferences, national awards, joint research collaborations with other North American universities, and ultimately, the bolstering of Mount Royal’s reputation internationally as a leader in research for teaching in higher education (the scholarship of teaching and learning).

The focus of the Nexen Scholars program (established 2009) is on conducting research in the classroom (or field school, or other teaching-learning context) and then disseminating the knowledge gained – that knowledge reaches all corners of the globe. The program brings together selected Mount Royal faculty committed to working together to develop and conduct classroom-based inquiry projects over the course of one year.

“Scholars have reported that conducting SoTL research in general transforms them as teachers. It makes them more focused on their students and helps them understand their students better,” explains Janice Miller-Young, director of SoTL. “The purpose of the research is to improve the scholars’ understanding of something happening their own class or program, which it does do, but scholarship is also about dissemination, in other words, contributing to knowledge about teaching and learning.”

Scholars present to their peers at Mount Royal through a seminar series organized by the Institute for SoTL, as well as at conferences around the globe to share with their colleagues in the broader higher education community. One of the most recent of which took place in Banff.

“In addition to the methodological and financial support, many participants have talked about the importance of the supportive community and interdisciplinary relationships that the program helps create,” Miller-Young says.

The 2013 crop of scholars are bringing their Nexen research projects to a close, but that doesn’t mean their research ends here, and Miller-Young couldn’t be happier with the results.

2013 Nexen Scholar research and impact: Brett McCollum, Chemistry, Gladys Sterenberg, Education and Schooling, and Kevin O’Connor, Education and Schooling

Investigating the connections between technology, student perceptions, and student learning: Brett McCollum, Chemistry, 2013 Nexen Scholar

Nexen Scholars Tile
Nexen Scholar Brett McCollum, PhD, and chemistry student Ana Sepulveda.

Did you know that 85 per cent of first-year Mount Royal science students regularly read on their mobile device and 65 per cent frequently complete schoolwork on their smartphone or tablet? These are just some of the surprising results coming out of Brett McCollum's teaching and learning research.

In his research comparing the iPad with more traditional visualization tools in chemistry, McCollum, Phd, was most surprised at how many learners switched their preferred technology based on the learning environment. The results of his study are now informing the use of electronic textbooks in chemistry.

McCollum points out that "by the start of 2015, over 32 per cent of the world's population will have internet access through mobile devices. Mobile technologies are providing new ways for learners to connect with information and with each other."

The chemistry education research team (which included current students, such as third year chemistry student Ana Sepulveda) previously observed that students who studied molecular shapes on the iPad for 15 minutes demonstrate an increase in performance relative to their peers who used print textbook images. The team found it interesting that the iPad learners behaved differently from the paper users. Those using the iPad were more likely to interact with the technology, as well as gesture with their hands while problem solving.

“We know from the literature that touch and gesture are important signatures of learning. We wondered how these differences reflected learners' preferences and opinions about learning technologies," says McCollum, who was invited to present his research at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in Allendale, Michigan, in Aug. 2014. His student research assistants won second place in the Chemical Education Division poster competition at the Canadian Society for Chemistry Conference in June.

Conducting one-on-one interviews with first-year students, McCollum's team found that learners can be fickle.

"Although past experience with a technology can be a early predictor of preference, learners are willing to migrate to a different learning instrument if the learning curve isn't too steep and if they consider it superior in terms of convenience," he says.

Design can also be a point of tension.

"We had 90 per cent of participants complain about the same feature in the iPad app, the way the molecules rotated. This issue is present in all the mobile software current available in the marketplace. Clearly, programmers need to hear the message our students have for them."

McCollum was most surprised at how many learners switched their preferred technology based on the learning environment.

"It all came down to the convenience of the device, it's compactness and the ability to quickly switch between molecules during the limited classroom time," he says.

Now collaborating with faculty in the US on interactive electronic textbooks, which incorporate manipulable molecular representations, McCollum plans to deploy the first modules at Mount Royal this academic year and continues to conduct research on teaching with technology.

McCollum has also been very proactive in helping his student research assistants take lead roles in the research. Sepulveda also presented at Mount Royal’s recent Symposium on SoTL regarding student perspectives in conducting SoTL research.

Communities of Practice: Students’ experiences within an introductory education course, Gladys Sterenberg, Education and Schooling, 2013 Nexen Scholar and Theory and Practice: Placing Field Experience at the Center of the Teacher Education Program, Kevin O’Connor, Education and Schooling, 2013 Nexen Scholar

In these overlapping research projects, education professors Gladys Sterenberg, Phd, and Kevin O’Connor, PhD, sought to understand how communities of practice and critical friends can contribute to teacher candidate professional learning and identity.

Nexen Scholars Content
Nexen Scholars Gladys Sterenberg, PhD, and Kevin O'Connor, PhD, with Bachelor of Education student Ranee Drader.

The professors were interested in the first and second year of Mount Royal’s innovative new education program, which places students in schools starting in their first year. Their research findings from their Nexen Scholars’ work is now informing the design and implementation of more integrative practicum experiences in the third and fourth year education students, as well as helping to position Mount Royal in an international context of research for teacher education.

A valuable member of their team is lead research assistant, third-year Bachelor of Education student Ranee Drader. Drader has served as Vice President External for the Education Undergraduate Society and is working towards a double minor in both Science and Humanities education. She just co-presented a keynote on their research at the fifth annual SoTL Symposium in Banff isotlsymposium.mtroyal.ca as well as a second plenary with Ana Sepulveda on What Students Want You to Know About Conducting SoTL Research.

In addition to the Mount Royal 2014 SoTL Symposium in Banff, Sterenberg and O’Connor have presented and published their SoTL research findings at: the 2014 Canadian Society for the Study of Education CSSE annual conference at Brock University; the 10th Annual Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices S-STEP-CASTLE international conference in Sussex, England; and most recently they have been selected to present at the 2015 American Educational Research Associations AERA conference in Chicago.

Based on their initial 2013-14 SoTL research findings, O’Connor and Sterenberg received a prestigious five-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada SSHRC Insight grant to support their most recent research-Realistic Experiences in Teacher Education. The purpose of this study is to investigate how transformative pedagogies can be enacted within a realistic approach to teacher education. It is through this process, that both educators believe they can better assist in building a renowned experiential teacher education program at Mount Royal.

Taking applications for the next Nexen Scholars

Mount Royal faculty members (full time and contract) are invited to submit research development proposals for participation in the 2015 Nexen Scholars Program. This program brings together selected faculty committed to working together to develop classroom-based inquiry projects designed to shed light on a significant aspect of student learning, and to share evidence and findings publicly in an effort to influence teaching in the field.

Faculty selected as Nexen Scholars will design and undertake an inquiry project in the Fall 2015 and/or Winter 2016 semester aimed at understanding or improving student learning.

Information on past projects can be found here.

— Compiled by Theresa Tayler and Janice Miller-Young, PhD, Nov. 18, 2014