Lab instructor brings renewed focus - and master of education - to teaching duties in College of Biological Science
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Marie Thérèse Rush has long considered teaching and learning not just an occupation but a preoccupation as well. That's even more so since last year, when the longtime laboratory instructor and U of G graduate collected a master of education degree to hang alongside her B.Sc.
Rush says completing that master's degree last spring has given her renewed enthusiasm for teaching students in a handful of biology lab courses here at Guelph. And, as she adds in semi-confessional style in her thesis, reaching the milestone is also helping her wrestle a demon that has perched on one shoulder since her own undergraduate days.
“Learning is a wonderful gift for me,” says a line in her thesis. More than that, learning is a process of “creating scholarly, artistic and scientific works which enrich and enlarge human life.” Or so says the Benedictine tradition that underpins the curriculum at College of St. Scholastica, a private college at the University of Minnesota that Rush chose for her degree.
The two-year program included a variety of courses, from teaching diverse students and assessing students' learning to learner motivation and use of multimedia.
Back at Guelph, her course in assessing learning has proven useful in teaching “Environmental Biology of Fishes,” which presented a challenge in grading students equitably. She has since designed marking rubrics that give students clearer targets for excellent or unacceptable work.
Citing Rush's passion for teaching, student Lindsay Bryanne Jennings recalls those rubrics as a useful tool.
“We knew before we walked into the classroom exactly what we were getting marks for and could prepare our talks accordingly.”
Also worthwhile was a course in conflict resolution for “Biology of Polluted Waters,” a course that sees students having to work together without being overwhelmed by masses of data for analysis.
Rush's thesis project also included assessment of multimedia modules in helping students learn. She first explored use of multimedia in the early 1990s. “I love that aspect. It's fun to program.”
She found that these modules help students cement course content, but not if students use them as a substitute for attending live labs.
Prof. David Noakes, Integrative Biology, says Rush's degree has made a difference in her approach to teaching in several courses.
“She has brought new ideas, new insights and new techniques to teaching, especially in terms of improved communication with students and a better understanding of how we can evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching.”
Rush completed most of the program by distance education. That meant her customary teaching lab sessions here at Guelph also became learning labs for her.
She also solicited help from other lab instructors, including conducting interviews on teaching topics with colleagues Greg Humphreys, Sandy Ackerley and Peter Smith. Putting principle into practice, she even took her learning home with her, where she enlisted help from her two sons in designing learning materials.
Rush had earlier taken plenty of workshops on aspects of teaching and learning, including courses offered by Teaching Support Services. “It made me hungry for more. I had always wanted to do a master's.”
As she explains in her thesis, she also saw the program as a way to dispel a lingering sense of dissatisfaction from her own undergraduate days at Guelph. Having prided herself on top marks through high school, she had trouble keeping up her average during her university marine biology program.
It was only after graduation, while working as a research assistant in the then-Department of Zoology, that she was diagnosed with narcolepsy. That helped explain why she had been “struggling to stay awake at the microscope.”
It certainly wasn't boredom that had been plaguing her. Rush says she loved her own program here. Her enthusiasm for teaching was awakened by Prof. Fred Ramprashad, for whom she worked as a technician in studying the inner ear of vertebrates.
She says her undergrad experience at Guelph allows her to identify with many of the innumerable students she has taught since the early 1980s. “I had struggled in vertebrate anatomy, so I knew how to help some of them.”
That role spills over after-hours to Rush's volunteer involvement as a Sunday school and children's liturgy teacher at her home church in Georgetown.
“Whether I am teaching my three- to four-year-olds during the children's liturgy class or my fourth-year university students during a laboratory session on reproduction in fish, the same practice applies: being mindful of my students and their needs.”
Asked how she reconciles her work — and, in particular, its evolutionary underpinnings — with her evident faith, Rush says: “The more I see, the more I believe. Studying biology hasn't done anything but strengthen my faith.”
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