Awards and recognition

SFU university lecturer, associate dean, Sarah D. Johnson awarded 3M National Teaching Fellowship

May 01, 2023
Department of Physics university lecturer, Sarah D. Johnson was recently awarded a prestigious 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

In the classroom, Sarah Johnson’s students and colleagues describe her as “enthusiastic, supportive, and compassionate” among many acclamations. Since joining SFU in 2005, her significant contributions to education have opened doors for all students who wish to pursue physics and are being recognized with a 2023 3M National Teaching Fellowship Award.

The fellowship, granted by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, is Canada’s most prestigious recognition of exceptional contributions to education at the post-secondary level. Among several feats, the award celebrates Johnson’s remarkable efforts in breaking the barriers that prevent young women from pursuing education and careers in physics and founding SFU’s Science and Math Peer-Tutoring Program

In her classes, Johnson’s educational approach consists of “demystifying” physics for her students, reminding them that although the content may be challenging to comprehend at first, the fascinating field is open for everyone to discover. 

To make physics accessible, relevant and engaging to students, Johnson applies innovative teaching techniques, such as studio physics, research-informed laboratory courses and flipped classrooms.  

Not long after joining SFU, Johnson developed an early intervention program aimed at improving the retention of science students  beginning their post-secondary education. The program provided tutorials in large first-year physics classes for students identified as being at high risk of failing.

In 2010, Johnson collaborated with several female faculty members from SFU’s Department of Physics to co-found the Girls Exploring Physics (GEP) program, an initiative designed to inspire girls in Grades 9 and 10 to pursue careers in physics.

“Sometimes it’s easier for young adults to relate to someone who looks like them,” says Johnson. 

Led by Johnson, the program offers workshops free of cost at SFU’s Burnaby campus, consisting of hands-on activities in various physics sub-disciplines, a tour of SFU’s Trottier astronomical observatory, and a discussion of career opportunities for those pursuing physics at the university level. 

Johnson strives to be a role model for young women interested in physics and credits her students for helping her stay motivated. “They keep me feeling young and inspired,” she says. 

Johnson champions teaching and learning across the university by supporting projects such as a decolonizing and Indigenizing STEM Community of Practice for faculty in the sciences, as well as founding the Science & Math Peer Tutoring Program, a free tutoring program for all science and math students at SFU.  Between 2014 and 2017, the program expanded to more than 16 student volunteers and became part of SFU’s university-wide Peer Education Program. 

One of the most fulfilling aspects of her work is meeting former students who decided to pursue careers in physics after taking one of her classes or attending a Girls Exploring Physics workshop. “It’s so rewarding to learn that I had a hand in helping them pursue their passion,” she says. 

“Johnson’s passion for student success and addressing inequity in science using innovative and often collaborative efforts such as the highly successful Science and Math Peer Tutoring program, her commitment to community outreach, and so much more, embody the ideals of the 3M fellowship”, says Sheri Fabian, a criminology professor who was awarded a 3M fellowship in 2019. “I am excited to welcome her to this community.”

Johnson joins the prestigious cohort of educators with aspirations to continue to support learning at SFU, especially  incoming students. “I want to look at how I can help ease the transition for high school students as they begin to take science courses at the post-secondary level,” she says.

“It’s an incredible honour to be receiving this award,” she adds. “But it wouldn’t be possible without the continuous support of my amazing colleagues at SFU and all my incredible students. I’ve collaborated heavily with faculty members and students from around the institution and enjoyed working with them very much.”

Johnson is one of 10 recipients to receive the honour in 2023. She now joins more than 350 3M National Teaching Fellows who have been recognized since the fellowship awards began in 1986, and who continue to elevate teaching and learning at their home institutions and through collaborative initiatives supported by 3M Canada, the society, and its Council of 3M Fellows.