By Derrick E. Rancourt, Department of Oncology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Calgary & University of Calgary Teaching Scholar
Teaching and research are not mutually exclusive, but mutually beneficial activities
I have come to realize that teaching is changing my view of research. I was fortunate to be chosen as a Taylor Institute Scholar, and through the Taylor Institute I have had the pleasure of working within a community of practice that seeks to increase the impact of teaching and learning through research. In my project, I am trying to convince the Cumming School of Medicine to embed professional development education into their graduate curriculum. I currently teach professional development at both the undergraduate and graduate level. I have evidence suggesting that students exposed to career and competency mapping are more engaged and productive. My job is to prove it to a bunch of scientists who think organizational psychology does not have the rigor of classical scientific disciplines. They need to see data.
Teaching and learning are undergoing a renaissance. Part of this is being forced upon universities because of the Internet’s bounty and spread of information. Thought leaders are envisioning a future without universities, or with universities that have changed substantially. The didactic (Sage on the Stage) approach of teaching and learning is being disrupted, and universities need to change to meet millennials’ needs. Teaching and learning are fundamental to the University’s mission. If we do not change, we are at risk of being disrupted.
With crisis comes opportunity: trainees can leverage this crisis to diversify their skill portfolios. Although there may be a shortage of teaching assistantships in certain faculties, there are still many ways that trainees can become involved in teaching from resource and/or research perspectives. Universities are keen to have their conventional courses move to online versions, which would offer more flexibility in providing educational opportunities. Why not work with an instructor to create online content? Similarly, with the cost of textbooks, why not join a movement to create online educational resources (http://ucalgary.ca/open/)? In addition, the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning offers a number of research grants to experiment with new forms of course and curriculum delivery:
Development and Innovation Grants give instructors the opportunity to develop, deliver and share new educational approaches. Through my involvement in the Taylor Institute, I have learned about the power of role-playing in the classroom. In my MDSC517 Biotechnology Business and Profession course, I am considering a practice grant submission that would allow students to play different roles (i.e. CEO, VP Finance, VP Marketing, Chief Scientific Officer). A version of this approach has been successfully applied elsewhere,  but I am interested in putting my own spin on it. Unknowingly, I already piloted elements of my idea when I made student teams storyboard virtual biotech companies of their own making and had them apply market disruption solution scenarios.
Lesson Study Grants help teams of three to six instructors collaborate to create, study and implement lessons in new settings. I am contemplating a lesson study grant to apply informational interviews more broadly on campus by having different faculty instructors apply them in their teaching. The basic idea is to use informational interviews as an experiential learning approach to motivate students to explore career mapping while practicing their networking skills. The approach can be applied to different faculties by simply having instructors generate lists of suitable careers. The end product can be symposiums and/or compendiums that satiate other students’ desires to know their career opportunities. This December, for example, I am planning the What Can You Be With a PhD symposium in the Cumming School of Medicine, based upon the work that my BMEN602 students will be doing this coming fall. I am also in discussion with faculties from Psychology, Sociology and Veterinary Medicine about submitting a SSHRC INSIGHT grant based upon the concept of embedding informational interviews into curriculum.
Finally, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Grants are individual or collaborative research projects that are meant to test meaningful questions about both student learning and the development of activities intended to facilitate that learning. I am contemplating the idea that informational interviews can be applied more broadly to empower enquiry. In research, we often “divine” solutions without involving end users; then we wonder why our grants or our publications are rejected. This breaks a tenet of design thinking, which is to involve the customer in developing the solution. I’ve recently learned that informational interviews are forms of rapid prototype testing where solvers meet with customers to validate their solution designs. I can’t help think that when we assign research projects to students, we should make them engage potential knowledge consumers in the process. Not only will their solutions be more readily adopted, but they will also become known by potential employers long before it is “job time.” I’m so convinced of this idea that I have recently submitted an NSERC CREATE LOI focused on applying design and informational interviewing to basic research.
I used to think that educational research was something professors did when their “real” research program was sunsetting. However, through my exposure to teaching and learning research I’ve learned that methods developed to improve teaching and learning can also impact research. For example, by showing undergraduates all of the career paths available to their disciplines, we will develop students who are more engaged in research. Similarly, by encouraging students to network with end users, we allow their ideas to be adopted more readily.
 Chuck J-A (2011) Hypothetical biotechnology companies: A role-playing student centered activity for undergraduate science students. Biochem Mol Biol Ed 39: 173-179.