The student becomes the educator through TLEF-funded projects

Many students pick up a part-time job expecting to make some income and add a line to their CV, but by becoming involved with on-campus projects they diversify their contributions to the UBC community — as students, developers, researchers and influencers in student learning.

The Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) at UBC provides funding for projects that employ students who are helping to reimagine education. Faculty members like Dr. Katherine Lyon, Dr. Siobhán McPhee, Dr. Claudia Krebs, and Dr. Suzie Lavallee are all leading innovative TLEF projects. They are working to redefine the way faculty members teach, by leveraging emerging technologies, such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and videography, into educational tools to enhance student learning.

That’s when students enter the picture. On a large university campus, there’s a huge pool of talent that is eager to contribute to and learn from ground-breaking work. These students find their way into partnerships with faculty, and together, they turn ideas into reality.

Students have unique perspectives and niche subject-knowledge which is why they are so valuable to project work, but the value of their contributions doesn’t stop there. They also impart teachings of their own to the university community — to student colleagues, entire classes, and even faculty members.


A learning opportunity for both faculty and students

Assistant Professor of Teaching in Sociology Dr. Lyon says that when a faculty member tries to improve learning outcomes, it is critical to “consult directly with students.” Kim Abella and Liam Su are both undergraduate research assistants (RAs) on her two-year project (in collaboration with Geography Professor of Teaching Siobhán McPhee) and recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. They’ve both returned the favour in teaching Dr. Lyon about student engagement in the construction of an app they built in the TLEF project.


“In many cases, the roles were flipped,” said Dr. Lyon. “Which was a terrific experience.”


Dr. Lyon and Dr. McPhee’s TLEF project, “Turning Public Spaces into Learning Spaces,” helps students in large first-year sociology and geography courses understand the historical and social context of social problems learned in class. Dr. Lyon and her team created a mobile app that students can download onto their phones. The app takes students on a tour of different Vancouver neighbourhoods, where they can listen to local community members recount significant events, such as protests and marches, as they walk through the streets where the stories happened. When students hold up the camera on their phone at specific geographical points, augmented reality videos and images pop-up on the screen painting a picture of the stories. Dr. Lyon says that she couldn’t imagine her project being successful without the help of students on her team.

Abella and Su’s edge in the creation of the project was their perspective. They knew that incorporating elements of gamification and role-playing would increase student engagement. Abella says it was important for students to be able to relate to the experience. It could not be a reiteration of an instructor-centred approach.


“We’re not just telling people information, but we’re weaving a story,” Abella said.


The two RAs expressed that they were thankful to experience a partnership with faculty, as opposed to the traditional student-teacher hierarchical relationship. Su was comfortable working with Dr. Lyon, as he felt she was more his collaborative peer than his superior. Abella says that students should “jump at the chance” if given the opportunity to work on similar projects with faculty members as it presents an entirely new learning experience. Being a part of this project helped her to realize that she wants to pursue a Masters in Sociology, while Lu was inspired to pursue a law degree. One day, Lu hopes to provide pro-Bono work for similar social causes explored in the app.


Student-to-student mentorship

Dr. Claudia Krebs, Professor of Teaching in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences, is also the founder of the Hackspace for Innovation and Visualization in Education (HIVE), a lab that creates tools using emerging technology to teach students in health sciences. Her lab has a diverse student team, with many projects ongoing at the same time.

One of her ongoing undertakings is the TLEF-funded series of anatomy modules called “Anatomy Learning Ecosystems,” used not only at UBC but around the world. A lot of similar information is available online, but not all of it is accurate or comprehensive enough for medical learning. This project provides accurate and easily-digestible learning material about various systems in the human body for medical students. The online resource is essentially a large library full of high-quality videos, interactive and instructional diagrams, and a photographic atlas of the human body.

The modules are created by students. For Dr. Krebs, partnering undergraduate and graduate students together on a module can make a powerful combination due to their difference in perspectives. An undergraduate student may still be learning the foundations of subject material, and their struggles may be very different from a graduate student with more knowledge.


“Bringing both of them together, oh, it’s almost magical because they learn so much from each other,” said Dr. Krebs.


Third-year medical student Iulia Dascalu has been working with fifth-year kinesiology undergraduate student Ishan Dixit to build a web-based 3D model of the visual system since September of last year. Dixit has been working at the HIVE for over three years, “bridging the gap between technology and medicine.” Dascalu chose to undertake this project because, in her first year, she found it challenging to learn the visual system on a traditional two-dimensional page. She had a desire to manipulate the illustrations so she could better visualize the concepts.

With her in-depth knowledge of the content and Dixit’s skill set in 3D modelling, they were an effective team. Dascalu suggested better ways to present concepts, and Dixit determined its feasibility. On the other hand, Dixit consulted Dascalu when he was in-doubt about subject matter. Their teamwork especially shined when they both were unsure of how to complete a task. Dascalu says they would “collaboratively troubleshoot,” leveraging the other’s strengths, convening at a solution. Dixit appreciates the collaborative nature of the HIVE, repeating a mantra often shared in the lab, “collaborate, don’t compete.”

This partnership partly inspired Dixit to apply for medical school next year and has taught Dascalu much more about the visual system, which has contributed to her interest to specialize in Ophthalmology and to find uses for emerging technology in her field.


“It just kind of opened my mind,” she said. “In the future, if I see a problem in the healthcare system, there might be a VR solution.”


The student workforce is an “untapped resource”


Dr. Suzie Lavallee, a Professor of Teaching in the Department of Forestry and Conservation Sciences, believes that our graduate student population has “hidden talents” that are yet to be discovered. She hired two graduate RAs, Aisha Uduman and Devin de Zwaan, to write the scripts and record voice overs for a series of three-minute YouTube shorts describing the taxonomic features of birds for a third-year course lab. To prepare for a lab, students usually go to Canvas to review coursework. When there’s a specific term or concept that they don’t understand on Canvas, they can click on that term to open up a video which explains key terminology.

Dr. Lavallee works with up to 20 different teaching assistants a year, yet, she is continually impressed with the teaching potential of graduate students. She says that they also serve as role models for undergraduate students, illustrating the “segue” between the undergraduate and the professor, where graduate students are growing and developing the skills to take on that responsibility.


“For the undergrads to see what that’s like, all of a sudden those become reachable goals, and I think that’s really important for them to see,” said Dr. Lavallee.


Devin de Zwaan recently completed his Ph.D. in avian ecology and conservation. He is adept at communicating with academics and writing scientific literature. However, in his experience writing the scripts for Dr. Lavallee’s video series, he learned how to effectively communicate sciences in other ways.


“To think about how to convey this information in a fun and friendly format for everyone to understand, especially university undergraduates,” said de Zwaan. “That’s something that I really took out of this experience that I can bring to my next stage.”


De Zwaan is completing contract-work and a UBC internship soon, with the possibility of completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Switzerland.


Student work enriches the UBC community

Providing opportunities for students to work alongside faculty, staff and students contributes to their own learning, improves faculty teaching, and influences education on a large classroom scale. However, these are simply a handful of stories among a vast ocean of personal and professional experiences across campus.

Thousands of students across all disciplines imaginable continue to work, even through the COVID-19 outbreak, to make UBC a little bit better day-by-day. Though students come to the university to learn, their enthusiasm, openness, and determination are invaluable contributions to everyone around them.

These work experiences are a win-win-win scenario for students, faculty members, and the university. Students further their learning in new ways and impart their wisdom onto the community. The UBC community would not be the same without them.