Carolyn Sparrey keeps students engaged by letting them in on her teaching strategies

March 09, 2021

Carolyn Sparrey’s dedication to teaching and her attentiveness to student wellbeing have earned her the 2020 SFU Excellence in Teaching award.

Sparrey, a professor in the School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering, teaches a variety of courses to both undergraduate and graduate students. These courses include kinematics and dynamics, biomechanics, mechatronics design, research methods and directed studies focused on applying engineering solutions to human health.

Though the concepts and information can be complex, Sparrey provides clear explanations and engineering problems to solve while tying them to real-life applications. These include giving interactive exercises during class time to further help students grasp concepts and develop problem-solving skills.

“Introducing and reviewing problems prior to solving them during class time has been effective in keeping students actively engaged and encourages them to think deeply to work through the problems,” says Sparrey.

“My work experience is in human injury and accident reconstruction. While these are not the traditional engineering examples, I believe they help with what students are learning and understanding where the skills can be used.”

As a researcher, Sparrey leads SFU’s NeuroSpine Lab and is the scientific director of SFU’s Image TechLab at Surrey Memorial Hospital. Additionally, she is a principal investigator at ICORD (International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries), a research centre for spinal cord injuries.

“One thing that has pivoted over time in my teaching is letting the students in on my teaching strategy. The students respond better when they know the reasons behind the activities we do in class to help them learn,” she says.

“This conversation on teaching strategies allows the students an opportunity to provide me feedback earlier on in the course. This in turn allows me time to tweak my teaching methods to each class.”

In addition to high ratings on her teaching evaluations, students’ comments display their enthusiasm for attending and comfort in participating in her classes.

“She was very approachable both in class and during office hours,” notes one student. “Her teaching was very engaged and would often require students to actively participate in-class activities.”

“Dr. Sparrey was always very enthusiastic and explained concepts in a way that was easy to understand, which made me excited to attend her lectures,” says another student.

The sudden transition to online teaching required educators to learn new tools and organize their lectures in a different way quickly. Being mindful that students may have challenges of their own during the pandemic while adapting to the new teaching environment, Sparrey ensures that she is available to connect with her students.

“The biggest challenge is developing community,” says Sparrey. “Prior to the pandemic, students would hang out after class and play Super Smash Bros. The physical school environment is now missing. So, the sense of ‘being in it’ together is also missing.”

“The pandemic taught me to do live online classes and to avoid pre-recorded lectures. Being present means I am readily available to answer questions during and after lectures.”

Despite the challenges posted by the pandemic and driven by the belief that anyone can learn anything, Sparrey continues to improve her teaching in order to empower students to learn.

“I see the ability to learn is the heart of future success - not only in the sense of formal education, but in an individual’s desire to learn,” says Sparrey.

“Learning doesn’t always happen at the same speed or same way for everyone, but if you give students the right tools and support, they can learn.”

View the recipients of SFU's 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award here>>