For university educators, it has always been challenging to find the most effective ways to teach and connect students to curriculum content. One solution: partner with industry and other institutions to let research and knowledge freely flow back and forth, providing rich learning opportunities for students, and skilled researchers for the partners.
The Masters of Science in Applied Computing (MScAC) program in the Department of Computer Science has been sending students out for research-related work terms for years. Working with Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that connects students with industry partners and helps fund their research, the program has forged strong ties with industry leaders.
According to Allan Borodin, Professor, Department of Computer Science, the relationship is a win-win-win. “Industry gets new innovative ideas from a graduate level person and students can receive research funding support,” Borodin says. “And faculty have the opportunity to see whether or not research ideas can have an immediate impact.”
In 2010, they added a project – Applied Research in Action (ARIA) – as the final component to an eight-month internship. “The ARIA event is a showcase for the students to show off their projects,” says Matt Medland, Lecturer and Associate Director of the MScAC Program. “They produce a report at the end of their internship with a poster and presentation augmenting it.”
Students work with industry partners on a project from development through completion in a real applied setting, rather than strictly theoretical, context.
“We like to give our students an opportunity to work on hard problems,” says Geoffrey Peddle, VP of Research & Development, Riva Modelling Systems. “If they find an answer then it will have a huge impact on our business.”
For senior students in the Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, the final integrative ten-week practical, in-the-field coursework provides the opportunity to work and learn in a hospital or clinic setting. While most stay in the Toronto area a few choose to go to more remote locations and work with Aboriginal communities. The first year that Pam Walker supervised these students, she discovered that some were not prepared for the challenges of living and working in these communities. “I realized they needed some preparation before they left,” Walker said. “The following year – in 2011 – we started the Aboriginal Health Option.”
Walker works with First Nations House at the University of Toronto to prepare and deliver four seminars to participating students. In addition to weekly readings, they bring in guest speakers – which have included an elder, a traditional teacher, a residential school survivor, and an aboriginal liaison in a hospital.
The nursing students stay in contact throughout the ten weeks on U of T’s Learning Portal, discussing their challenges and successes. It is also an opportunity for Walker to assess what else might better prepare them for this experience.
The Aboriginal Health Option has also informed other courses and practicums in the Faculty of Nursing. Since 2012, Walker has been teaching an aboriginal health section in an urban community health course, working with aboriginal service organizations to provide placements for the nursing students.
“I am interested in students individually helping, or having good experiences and relationships with their clients and then potentially being part of a greater critical mass that will change the unit cultures so the aboriginal people coming to the hospital will have a better experience,” she said.
In other disciplines across the University of Toronto the emphasis is to apply research skills to teaching and education itself. Recognizing that each discipline presents unique advantages and challenges when educating their students, the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering partnered with the Department of Curriculum Teaching and Learning (CTL) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) to create the Graduate Collaborative Program in Engineering Education.
While students are completing course work they are also engaging in active learning and research through the Centre for Science, Math and Technology within CTL. Clare Brett, an Associate Professor in CTL, who is also the director of the centre, says this forum is a place “where students and faculty from both departments, as well as faculty from other science and math areas are collaboratively generating ideas for new kinds of student learning opportunities in various programs.”
The Graduate Collaborative Program between these two Faculties supports graduate students who want to teach, but also benefits the engineering community with research that supports corporate training and science communication with the public.
For Brett, applied research provides a variety of employment-related skills, “including sometimes overlooked skills like communicating ideas effectively with people from different disciplinary contexts, a kind of interdisciplinary literacy, as well as more specific cross-disciplinary skills and practices.”
By connecting departments, students and educators, U of T is building a support network and system for future generations of teachers and engineers. It is more than putting theory into practice – it’s bringing the classroom to their community.