Faculty of Science

A quintessential learning guide

Jenna Butler

Dr. Tom Haffie

Tom Haffie, creator and professor of Western’s Biology Education and Life Science course, is the quintessential “learning guide”. A recent recipient of the USC Alumni Teaching Award, given to undergraduate professors who exemplify excellence in their teaching methods and create innovative learning environments for their students, Haffie designed the course to introduce teaching skills into the “toolbox of scientists.”

Revising the hierarchal and directive role of the professor, Haffie created this course with a strong sense of what his students call “academic community,” where lecture time is minimal and students are empowered to sculpt their learning path. To that end, students were challenged with the use of best practices in the design of the Biology Education course. Research; developing awareness about existing teaching and learning tools and techniques, analysis; demonstrating an understanding that teaching tactics must be highly responsive to the variety of classroom  learning styles, and innovation; designing new and distinctive ways of engaging the learner were central to this desired outcome.

Working in groups, the students considered learning issues both inside the four walls of the traditional classroom and beyond its borders, in the field.  Some groups addressed the challenges of the “lecture-only” type of course and developed recommendations to catalyze its evolution into a more interactive and experience-based learning environment. Others developed ideas to enhance high-impact learning experiences in the field, like a biology-based summer camp. With a focus on the engagement of the broader community, students even created an interactive app that facilitates user learning about local biodiversity.

Haffie both empowered and trusted his students. As a result, the Biology Education and Life Science Course became an environment filled with the sharing of information, insights and perspectives on science learning. An inspired educator, Haffie appreciated their reciprocal trust. Listening to their final group presentations, Tom Haffie experienced an “astounding and special moment” as he felt a true understanding of his students – their learning needs, concerns and even their creativity.

Through this transformative course, students were able to discover misconceptions about science education, challenge them and come up with new learning tools and techniques together. Their tool box, as well as their learning network broadened and Haffie couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

In the true spirit of a learning guide and leader, Tom Haffie, having received a monetary prize with the award, contributed the funds to the Biology Education and Life Sciences community to further encourage innovative and effective science education.