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University of Calgary at 50 - Alumni Weekend

Image of a sign for University of Calgary Alumni weekend
In April 1966 as I was writing exams for my first year university courses, the excitement on campus was all about autonomy. On April 29, 1966 that autonomy meant my university suddenly became a new institution with a new name: “The University of Calgary”. I had no idea then that 50 years later I would still be learning as I attended #UCAlumniWeekend. Yes, I spent the weekend reliving my youth on campus. The program titled “This will GROW your mind!” was an exciting opportunity to attend lectures, visit displays and exchange ideas with 50 years of alumni.

The weekend kicked off with University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon’s Evening of Celebration reception in one of the newest buildings on campus, the Energy Environment Experiential Learning building. Known as EEEL, it is a very impressive LEED Platinum certified space. There was of course, the usual array of politicians and dignitaries all congratulating the university and community for 50 years of support. The evening culminated with the announcement of Energize, a new campaign to support the Eyes High vision. All in attendance walked away with a great feeling of pride. We were also given a new book The Age of Audacity to help us celebrate 50 years of Calgary’s own university.

Saturday morning started off early with a short welcoming address by President Cannon. We already had our day tentatively planned thanks to excellent advance communications and a smartphone app. Upon registration we also received the paper program This will GROW your mind!. My first session, in the Future Proofing category, was the Future of Education – STEM. After introducing ourselves to the other alumni in the room, we were asked by Dr. Paulino Preciado Babb to solve a problem. Pretty low tech, we were given magic markers and a puzzle in a clear plastic page protector and a half sheet of paper towel. That way if we didn’t solve it on the first try, we could erase and start over. Dr. Babb explained that the use of these puzzles with young children allows them to master numbers prior to learning addition and subtraction. He explained that if we wanted to get our heads around how difficult it is for little kids to do this, then we should try the same puzzle substituting months in a second language we might be trying to learn.

We then moved on to the ghost in house game. This is the one where the ghost goes through all doors only once and ends up back in the same room. After playing with this puzzle for a while we learned that it was just a simplified version of the Konigsberg seven bridges problem which leads to topology and graph theory. The whole idea is to start easy and then move on to the harder versions.

The next speaker, Dr. Pratim Sengupta challenged us to ask what is play and what is solving problems. He then went on to tell us of watching a small child jumping off a ledge at the park. The child was fully concentrating on the task, yet there was no reason to do the task other than play. Play is something we don’t have to do, it is for pure enjoyment. Dr. Sengupta then challenged us to see the value of play to education. He then led us through a quick overview on seeing science as modeling. Think DNA. It was called the Watson and Crick model for years; now we accept it as fact.

Dr. Sengupta suggested that teachers are always in the process of designing and crafting activities leading to the understanding of science, be it concepts, process or practice. He then went on to illustrate examples used by teachers in various school districts where the big STEM ideas are integrated. The question and answer period quickly moved on to the hot topic of learning the times tables and cursive writing in schools. That may have to be a topic for a future blog. Suffice to say that both presenters felt learning the times tables is not excluded by their learning theories.

I spent my lunch hour visiting with alumni and faculty at the mid-day break back at the EEEL building where the Faculty of Science set up activities and demonstrations to “spark your curiosity”.

In the afternoon, I attended Pastries to Petri Dishes, a fascinating presentation by Dr. Isabelle Barrett-Ng describing how she has had great success using a flipped-classroom approach with very large classes of 400 - 600 students. This creative approach to science education has led her to great success and a lowering of the rate of D, F or W (withdrawal) grades from 12% to 1%.

We discussed types of creativity. She helped us realize that while we often tend to think of creativity as an individual eureka moment, it really is more common to find it as a social group dynamic. Furthermore, the classroom engagement comes from this ability to have group creativity. Dr. Barrett-Ng showed how this flipped approach fosters Independent thinking, the ability to meet challenges and ask new questions. Ultimately this means that the students own the material.

Here is how the flipped classroom at the university level works. Dr. Barrett-Ng creates teams of 5 to 7 students. The teams negotiate and come up with contracts to ensure how the work and study will be done. The students read or watch videos, write quizzes both alone and then in their group. In class time they review, ask questions and analyze raw data where there are no right or wrong answers. Besides fewer low marks and drop-outs, these students who learn through a flipped-classroom philosophy have better performance scores on science inquiry skills than their counterparts at other universities.

I felt so inspired when this session was over that I told Dr. Barrett-Ng that I was ready to go back to and start all over again - 50 years later at the University of Calgary.


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University of Calgary at 50 - Alumni Weekend

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