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Biologist named to top ten list for TVO’s Best Lecturer

TOP TEN FINALIST: Biology professor Clare Hasenkampf, pictured here with a graduating student, has been named to the list of finalists from across the province for TVO's Best Lecturer competition. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Professor Clare Haskenkampf of the Department of Biological Sciences at U of T Scarborough is one of ten faculty members from across the province to be named a finalist for TVO’s Best Lecturer competition.

Hasenkampf is the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at U of T Scarborough, and is the only finalist from this campus. The University of Toronto has three other finalists, all from St. George campus, including Shawn Lehman (anthropology), Paul Stevens (English) and Doug Richards (physical education and health). The six other finalists from around Ontario are: James Allard (Brock); Anton Lawrence Allahar (UWO); Matthew Bellamy (Carleton); Rod Carley (Canadore College); Darryl Davies (Carleton); and Merv Mosher (York).

“I was thrilled,” said Hasenkampf after learning she had been named a finalist. “It was really nice just to be nominated in the first place, because the nominations are based on student input, but the fact that I can speak to a television audience on subjects that I care about is a real dream.”

Although this is her first time being nominated to TVO’s Best Lecturer competition, Hasenkampf is no stranger to teaching awards. In 2008, she was named the recipient of a University of Toronto President’s Teaching Award. As well, she received a Leadership in Faculty Teaching (LIFT) award in 2007 from the province of Ontario in recognition of her teaching excellence. In 2003, she helped to launch a co-op program in cell and molecular biology to help give talented science students some work experience that provides a head start on their careers before graduation. These are just a few of the achievements and accolades she has received in recognition of her commitment and encouragement to enhancing teaching.

“On behalf of the campus community, I am pleased to congratulate Clare Hasenkampf on this recognition of her excellence as a teacher and educator who brings out the very best in her students,” said Professor Ragnar-Olaf Buchweitz, Vice-Principal (Academic) and Dean. “She was appointed as Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning early last year, precisely because our community already knew what a great teacher she is. This was also recognized by the province through the LIFT award she won last year, and through her appointment to the President’s Teaching Academy. She is certainly one of our most energetic and dedicated teachers, and I’m glad to see that the public at large recognizes these qualities in her as well. We are also proud of the record number of faculty nominees from our campus this year who continue to deliver excellence in both teaching and research.”

In her research, Hasenkampf examines the structure and function of plant chromosomes. Subjects of her work are: meiosis (part of the process of gamete formation), chromosome structure and function, DNA replication, and genome evolution. She probes gene function and uses DNA and protein purification techniques combined with immuno-cytochemistry, light and electron microscopy and mutant analysis on plants. She is a full member of the graduate program in Cell and Systems Biology. As well, her lab is an active member of the Plant Cellular and Molecular Processes (PCMP) group at U of T Scarborough, which holds regular discussions on topics related to plant growth, development, reproduction and response to stress.

Asked about her approach to teaching, she replied, “I go into my lecture with a key idea about what I want the students to learn, and three or four main points, and I think about how I can get them to really be engaged,” she said. “I ask myself, ‘What’s the hook going to be? How can I engage them?’ Not all students walk into class ready to learn, and sometimes you feel you are competing for their attention, so I try to identify an attention grabber and then figure out what the stumbling blocks will be once they engage.”

For instance, one of Hasenkampf’s most memorable teaching tools is her collection of “chromosome socks” which are used to illustrate in 3-D her lessons about chromosomes and cell division. She purchased several different coloured pairs of pantyhose, cut off the torso sections, and stuffed the insides with pillow fill before tying off the ends. “There are two kinds of chromosome divisions and the students have trouble visualizing this, so I developed these learning objects as a way for them to see what I’m talking about.” The Velcro on the sides of the socks enable her to pair up the chromosomes of the same colour to demonstrate the process of meiosis – two-part nuclear division in which the number of chrosomes is halved during gamete formation. “Textbooks and overheads just don’t show this as well, and the students can comprehend the process much more easily.” The popularity and usefulness of the sock lessons is evident in student course evaluations over the years. “Some students will write, ‘I really love Dr. Hasenkampf’s wild pantyhose’ and it may sound kind of kinky, but I’m not actually wearing the pantyhose. It’s all part of the journey of learning.”

Motivating students to learn is crucial, said Hasenkampf, who teaches introductory biology to first-year students. “If you care passionately about what you’re teaching, that will come through, and students will know it,” she said. As a longtime teacher, it’s important to focus on what you like best about teaching. “Keep your passion,” she advises. “Over the years, that can be a challenge, but don’t let anyone take the air out of your balloon.”

Good teaching puts the emphasis on the learner more than the delivery, she adds. “Sometimes new instructors obsess about what they have to cover and they put themselves through the wringer worrying how to present the material,” she said. “My advice is not to spend time shaping the world’s most elegant lecture. Focus instead on what the students need to be able to do by the end of the course, and how you can help them to get there. Think about how they can make that material their own, and how they can develop certain skills.”

Whereas some students seem focused on grades and on whether a given lesson will be on the test, Hasenkampf says that is reasonable provided that the tests and the learning coincide. Tests should be designed to assess the student’s ability to analyze and think critically, she added. “We need to make sure that what we want them to learn and the things on which we test them are not separate. The two should merge, and the worst case is when there’s a disconnect between what you want them to learn and what’s on the test. It’s easy to create tests that are just recall questions, but the students are here to learn something more and develop critical thinking and analytical skills, and they should feel betrayed if they are just asked to regurgitate information. ”

Much of the success in teaching is achieved quietly, she said. “The students who are struggling or disgruntled are the ones you’ll hear from more often,” she said. “The big successes may be the people you don’t hear from at all, or the ones you only hear from occasionally. They grow from the experience and move on. With the others, it’s important not to take the complaints personally, because it may not have anything to do with the faculty member. When it happens to me I try to park my ego and deal with where the learning system has broken down. If there’s a problem or complaint, I try not to take it personally, which is difficult sometimes, and I work to discover exactly what and where the learning obstacles are.”

Asked about her favorite aspect of teaching, Hasenkampf said, “I like many things about teaching. I enjoy the performance aspect of it, and I really like being able to help students find themselves. I enjoy the interaction with students, and the fact that you can develop a relationship with them around a course and a common interest.”

Television viewers can watch the lectures by Clare Hasenkampf and the other top ten finalists on the Big Ideas program and cast their votes after the lectures begin broadcasting after Feb. 28. Hasenkampf’s lecture, “Chromosomes Dividing: How it’s Done and Why it Matters,” will be shown at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 22. The lecture series is sponsored by Meloche Monnex, and the winning lecturer’s institution will receive a $10,000 Meloche Monnex Scholarship. Watch for more details on the campus web site or visit for details.

© University of Toronto Scarborough