Professor Elizabeth Elle takes on new role at SFU

August 15, 2018

There’s no doubt biology professor Elizabeth Elle’s toes are tapping with excitement as she counts down the days to becoming SFU’s first associate vice-president, learning and teaching, this September.

Tap dancing, singing and acting are a passion for Elle, who belongs to the North Vancouver-based, 170-member show choir, Burstin’ with Broadway.

But her principal passion is teaching, and she’s good at it. In 2010 she won the Faculty of Science Excellence in Teaching award.

She holds a master’s degree in teaching and taught two years in the New Jersey secondary school system before realizing she would prefer teaching adults. That’s when she applied for a PhD program at Rutgers University and discovered another passion—ecological research.

Since joining SFU almost 20 years ago, Elle has become a renowned expert on wild bees and pollination ecology while also developing a teaching repertoire that has included hands-on experiential learning, such as her writing-intensive Techniques in Ecology and Evolution course.

Now, she’s taking a five-year hiatus to lead SFU’s initiatives to improve and enhance learning and teaching.

She spoke with SFU News about her upcoming role.

Why did you apply for this position?

The university created this leadership position to shepherd our teaching initiatives and ensure there is follow-through, to improve the learning experience for students. I had been the biology department chair for five years and was looking for the next challenge to keep me excited about coming to work in the morning. And I’m very excited. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

What is your mandate?

I’ll be responsible for advancing teaching initiatives at SFU. VP Academic Peter Keller is currently working on the next Academic Plan for SFU, and has been clear that he thinks it’s time for us to transition to new ways of teaching to support today’s students.

As well, I’ll be taking a serious look at the big curricular initiatives from recent years, including our Educational Goals initiative, and the 2006 Writing, Breadth and Quantitative course initiative, to figure out what is working and what we can improve.

What would new ways of teaching look like?

We need to think about more flexible ways to structure courses for students who are experiencing the world differently and so learning a lot differently than we did. Some examples might be adding more online components to brick-and-mortar classrooms, or moving away from the 13-week semester and adding either shorter, more intensive, or longer courses to the curriculum.

We need to meet the needs of students where they are, and I think that means capitalizing on the different modes of instruction we already use. These might include flipped classrooms, just-in-time teaching, role play and experiential learning models. If we take some chances and discover and deliver more non-traditional ways of teaching we will better capture students’ imagination and build on their learning potential.

We’re already doing some amazing things around learning and teaching but it has been spread out and not as collaborative as it could be. I think there is much more we could be doing if one person is looking after initiatives and encouraging that collaboration.

What challenges do you expect to encounter?

This new role is all about culture shift. We have amazing people doing great things, but there are others who aren’t yet convinced that they could consider doing things differently. A big part of my work will be to help them see the benefit of innovating for themselves, as well as for their students.