GIFTs up for Grabs, Spring 2012

Accessible Version

By Natasha Patrito Hannon, Educational Developer, Teaching Support Centre

During this past holiday season, the TSC called upon Western graduate students to contribute generously to those in need ... of novel teaching ideas, that is! The Great Ideas for Teaching (GIFT) contest offers graduate students an opportunity to design and share unique classroom activities, creative assignments or other instructional strategies that enhance student learning. Three exceptional proposals were selected from among numerous submissions to be shared with the Western community at the Winter Conference on Teaching and via our website ( student_programs/teaching_contest.  html). Complete with stated learning outcomes, descriptions of key concepts addressed, and a breakdown of timelines and necessary resources, these GIFTs are ripe for incorporation in Western classrooms by faculty and TAs alike.

The winning proposals were designed with a specific disciplinary- and course-context in mind, however many of the ideas could be easily modified for application across academic fields. Elizabeth Hundey conceived of an exciting Photo-Reflection assignment for an introductory Physical Geography course. The semester-long reflective project draws students out of the classroom and into a critical examination of the landscapes and weather patterns that surround them. Students are asked to curate a collection of four original photographs and provide a description of the geographic components/phenomena illustrated therein. While print submissions are acceptable, students are encouraged to explore online tools such as Flickr and tumblr for the presentation of their assignment. This project seeks to engage diverse learners, offering students a venue to apply geographic concepts to personal experiences and ‘read’ landscapes using the academic framework and language of professional geographers.

Chelsea Hicks, graduate student in Biology, crafted a proposal that sought to address a pressing contemporary problem--many professionals are not equipped with the requisite skills to function effectively in interdisciplinary teams (Bruce, 2004). Using a popular elective course in Science (Genetics in Everyday Life) as inspiration, Chelsea developed a suite of three integrated activities that capitalize on the diverse disciplinary backgrounds of registered students and support the development of their teamwork and information literacy skills. The proposal describes, at length, two collaborative workshops and a group project that function in unison to both prepare students for and assess their established skills in interdisciplinary collaboration.

An instructor in introductory Computer Science, Jenna Butler often struggled to make abstract concepts concrete for her diverse group of first year students.  Through the creative use of physical objects, simulations using student volunteers, and theatrical representations, Jenna enlivened complex concepts such as inheritance, recursion and linkedlist algorithms, simultaneously enhancing both student understanding and retention. Her proposal described in detail the eminently practical, low cost, and effective techniques that she employed over the past year. These would serve as wonderful inspiration to any instructors seeking greater student engagement in the large-class context.

Our graduate students constantly impress us with their inventiveness and insights into modes of effective undergraduate instruction.  At the TSC, we encourage them to articulate their instructional ideas in a number of formats--the GIFT contest, contributions to our Future Professor Series of workshops, and via submissions to the Teaching Innovation Projects (TIPS) journal. We call on all members of the Western community involved in teaching and learning to capitalize on our graduate students’ valuable pedagogical insights.


Bruce, A., Lyall, C., Tait, J., & Williams, R. (2004).  Interdisciplinary integration in Europe: the case of the Fifth Framework programme. Futures 36(4), 457-470.