Teaching Excellence recognized in the Faculty of Science

July 17, 2014

Joan Sharp and Zamir Punja, both from the Department of Biological Sciences, were awarded this year’s Faculty of Science Excellence in Teaching Awards.

Senior lecturer Joan Sharp has been teaching Biology at SFU since 1982 and has always ensured that her teaching and course development activities follow her teaching philosophy. “If we teach biology as a body of facts, we are doing our students a grave disservice” claims Sharp.  Her techniques, which have brought praise from students and faculty over the years, include developing and nurturing student’s curiosity, encouraging them to question what they see and hear and asking questions when the concepts or examples are not clear.

Sharp says, “A challenging classroom provides students with the opportunity and the tools to think critically, to argue effectively and to evaluate relevant evidence, to master key scientific skills, and to write as scientists. As an instructor, I provide opportunities for students to actively explore and develop their own understanding of biological concepts through active learning in large lecture classes, in laboratories, and in tutorials. As students work through problems and write about biological topics, both students and instructors find out what students know and do not know. This allows students to understand and correct their misconceptions, to refine their understanding of key concepts, and to learn how to express that understanding. Active learning is a powerful tool to engage students, to help them master course content, and to help them grow as biologists.”

Sharp’s nominators applaud her innovative classroom techniques (she was an early adopter of clickers, flipped classrooms and the internet) and comment on “her exceptional commitment to student learning. She combines a dedication to critical thinking with her endless energy and enthusiasm to ensure that every student in her courses are personally challenged and supported.”

Sharp’s dedication to her students is also evident in the “practice exams” that she administers and returns with detailed feedback to any student who submits answers by a given deadline. She also encourages her students to submit drafts of their essays and provides detailed feedback as well.  For Joan, teaching is clearly a passion but also “a wonderful way of continuing my own education. I find that I learn from my colleagues, from teaching assistants and, most of all, from the students I teach.”

Zamir Punja joined SFU in 1989 as an associate professor of plant pathology after working for several years as a research scientist in industry. Besides having made substantial contributions in the area of plant disease diagnosis and epidemiology, Punja is an outstanding teacher whose student evaluations have placed him among the most highly ranked professors within the Department of Biological Sciences. Punja’s popularity in the classroom can be attributed to his organized, creative and enthusiastic lecturing style that, according to his students, “make learning Biology fun and interesting”. 

Punja, along with Chemistry professor Uwe Kreis, is also responsible for creating the highly successful course called Brewing Science, (BISC 372) which has broken barriers in myriad ways. Not only has the topic never been in the curriculum before, but much of the content was designed in consultation with community partner, Central City Brewing and Distillers, who donated their production facilities for student learning. The course was open to all qualifying third-year SFU students and attracted many students from other faculties who had never experienced an upper level science course before. The course was oversubscribed within one day of registration and the lucky students who registered were thrilled with the outcome.  Communication student, Caroline N. says, “The guest speakers, hands-on learning, passionate Profs, and chance at working with students from other fields have made for an excellent and engaging experience with beer brewing science. I highly recommend this class for students of all academic backgrounds that have a passion and interest for beer.” 

Punja is a past recipient of an SFU Excellence in Teaching Award, the SFU Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy and many other awards too numerous to mention. He has diligently contributed to myriad research publications, has edited three books and currently holds the position of Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal of Plant Pathology.

All tenure-track and continuing faculty are eligible to apply for Excellence in Teaching awards, and Department Chairs may submit up to two nominations per year by the deadline of May 1.

Four Graduate Student Teaching awards are also awarded every year to Teaching Assistants who are graduate students enrolled in a Master’s or PhD program. The 2014 winners are Donna Hohertz from the Physics Department and Jesse Taylor and Andrew Wylie of Biological Sciences.

Dean of Science Claire Cupples states, “Students are our top priority and these award winners contribute to a first-class education for our students. Alumni on our Inspiring Alumni website page consistently mention how important faculty were to the quality of their education and the choices they made upon graduation. Congratulations to Joan, Zamir, Donna, Taylor and Andrew”.