An Invitation to be Still – Veronica Brown

After many years at Waterloo, you would think I would be ready for September. Yet every year, I feel a bit walloped. The end of August, that rare time on campus when things are quiet, is such a contrast to the energy of the first few weeks of September. But by Thanksgiving, I am ready for a rest.

So, rather than sharing some ideas through this week’s blog post, I am inviting you to take five minutes to be still. I realize for some, the idea of sitting quietly for five minutes is unbearable. For others, it is a welcome respite from the busyness of our academic life. Even if you last only a minute or two, don’t discount the value of this quietness.

If it helps, consider listening to this song ( It is by one of my favourite composers, Timothy Corlis, who studied physics at Waterloo as well as music, theology and peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel. The song is performed by the Da Capo Chamber Choir. Another option is to simply reflect on the images at the end of this blog. They are from places where I have enjoyed moments of calm solitude.

Or perhaps, take a few minutes to walk around campus and notice the changing leaves, the crispness of the air. Whatever you do, just take a moment to catch your breath.


Red rock and sand with blue sky and a few clouds at Valley of Fire
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Farmer's field of dandelions with a grey sky
Near St. Jacob’s, Ontario
Sunset over water with small islands and pine trees
Georgian Bay, Ontario

September Welcoming Events for New Faculty 2015 – Monica Vesely

ivy on brickYesterday, Wednesday, September 9th, nearly 50 new faculty gathered at Federation Hall to attend this year’s New Faculty Welcome Event. The program for this annual half-day orientation event features a series of information sessions designed to acclimatize our new faculty to the University of Waterloo and to provide opportunities to meet one another and members of the larger University of Waterloo community.

After a brief welcome from Ian Orchard (Vice-President, Academic and Provost), the day got underway with a presentation entitled Navigating Your Roles at UWaterloo which provided an overview of the roles new faculty will have to assume in their academic careers. Donna Ellis (Director of the Centre for Teaching Excellence), John Thompson (Associate Vice-President, University Research) and Tim Kenyon (Arts Associate Dean, Research) addressed the faculty triumvirate of teaching, research and service.

Next came the Getting to Know Waterloo session which provided a big-picture overview of our institution and what defines the Waterloo Way. Logan Atkinson (University Secretary & General Counsel) spoke about the university’s structure and governance and made extensive reference to the Secretariat and Office of General Counsel website particularly when referring to some the key university policies. Sue Grant (Assistant Director, Organizational and Human Development) discussed the culture at Waterloo and highlighted our Basic Principles. The FAUW (Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo) President, Sally Gunz, talked about the organization of the faculty association and the support services available through their office. Scott Davis (Faculty Relations Manager for Arts, Environment, and Accounting) rounded out the session with a presentation about co-operative education and how it interfaces with all aspects of university activity.

The morning concluded with the Adjusting to Waterloo panel discussion where peers spoke openly about their own experiences as new faculty members and shared thoughts and insights with the audience. This year we were joined by Joanna Garcia (School of Accounting and Finance), Simron Singh (School of Environment, Enterprise & Development) and Mark Smucker (Management Sciences). The post-session Q & A period allowed new faculty to seek answers to a variety of questions ranging from academic (What types of tenure and promotions considerations do I need to be aware of?) to broader community interest inquiries (Where do I find the best craft beer?).

Incorporated into the program were opportunities for new faculty to explore the Academic Support Units Resource Fair showcasing services and resources available across campus. There were 21 academic support units represented this year and such a gathering of resource material represented a unique opportunity for new faculty to pose those questions that were in need of answers to the very people that could provide those answers.

The morning was capped off by a luncheon with the Chairs, Directors and Deans accompanied by more conversation and an informal information exchange.

What’s next on the new faculty calendar? Later this week, on Friday, September 11th, new faculty and their families have been attended to attend a BBQ at Steckle Farm in Kitchener. This annual event is co-sponsored by the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo (FAUW) and the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and will be hosted by University President, Feridun Hamdullahpur, and FAUW President, Sally Gunz.

These welcoming activities were intended as a brief introduction to faculty life at the University of Waterloo and to provide a forum for our incoming class of 2014-2015 new faculty to share experiences and start making connections with their colleagues and the broader University of Waterloo community. These two marque events were planned and hosted by the New Faculty Committee which is composed of representatives from the Centre for Teaching Excellence, the Faculty Association and Human Resources.

Increasing your Confidence in Teaching – Marcie Chaudet

Confidence in the classroom is a quality in teaching that some people may struggle with as an instructor. Despite having a high level of knowledge and experience, new instructors can battle this perception of ability. This is a quality that I personally have struggled with for a number of years during my time as a graduate student. The thought of having to speak in front of a group of people was always something that terrified me and as result influenced my confidence. When I began graduate school it was clear that public speaking was not a task I could avoid and this fear was something I would have to face.
Naturally, my uneasiness of public speaking crept into my confidence in the classroom as a teaching assistant. I found that during my teaching assistantship I would be nervous talking in front of the class and interacting with students. In order to improve my confidence in my teaching I sought out support from the Centre of Teaching and enrolled in the Fundamentals of Teaching certificate program and began my journey into improving my teaching skills.

Upon attending my first few workshops I was amazed at how confident the facilitators were while standing up speaking at the front of the room. I was impressed with their communication skills and how at ease they were with presenting and I wondered to myself if this was something I was also capable of. A component of the fundamentals program is the completion of three microteaching sessions. A microteaching session consists of giving a short 15 min talk delivered to your peers, followed by immediate constructive feedback. Following my short talk I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I received from my small audience. It turned out I actually was not terrible at pubic speaking and my peers found my presentation quite engaging. This validation of my efforts was remarkable and I immediately could sense a difference in my self-confidence. It felt as though a switch had been turned on in my brain, all of sudden I felt little more confident in my abilities at speaking in front a group of people. By the time I completed my third microteaching session I wasn’t fearful of public speaking and felt confident to present a talk. I also found that during my teaching assistantship I was feeling more comfortable talking in front of the class and providing instructions.

Overall, I found the fundamentals program to be a positive experience and I was encouraged to begin the next certificate program, Certificate in Undergraduate Teaching. Participants of this program are expected to complete two guest lectures within their discipline. In the past, the thought of giving a guest lecture to a 100 undergraduate students would have been terribly frightening, but I found that I was actually excited to complete this task. By the time I competed my two guest lectures I was very confident in my teaching abilities and was looking forward to the future of new teaching endeavours and speaking opportunities.

Confronting my fear of public speaking has allowed me to gain significant confidence in my communication skills. By exploring the teaching programs at the Centre for Teaching I have not only increased my knowledge of post-secondary education but also learned specific strategies that allow me to feel comfortable in front of a class and confident with presenting. The feedback I gained from these experiences was greatly constructive and allowed me to reflect on my performance and gain insight into my communication skills.

Based on my experiences at the Centre for Teaching of Excellence I learned three main things about confidence in the classroom:

1. Expand your Pedagogy Knowledge
The greater understanding you have of teaching and the learning environment will translate into demonstrated confidence in your knowledge of the classroom. Also, by exploring new teaching ideas and methods you will find you are inspired and this will give you a sense of courage in the classroom.

2. Push Yourself to New Heights
Even though there may be certain elements of the teaching environment that are new and may make you feel unsure of your abilities, be sure to push past those fears. By taking risks and pushing forward you will find over time these fears will disappear and your confidence will increase.

3. Explore Alternative Opportunities
Exploring new opportunities that fall outside your teaching assistantships or sessional teaching will allow you to expand your knowledge and ultimately increase your confidence in the classroom. Focusing on new challenges and opportunities, such as speaking at an academic conference, will allow you to build your self-confidence and gain valuable perspective that your fears can be conquered.

Simulating a National Security Crisis: Learning Security in the Classroom — Zainab Ramahi and Amy Wood

soldiersOn the centennial anniversary of the First World War, high school students from across Waterloo Region gathered at the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s (CIGI) sixth annual Global Youth Forum to commemorate WWI and to place its composite events in historical and global context. Students from the University of Waterloo’s Political Science department led 120 participants through three role-playing simulations to learn about the decision-making processes and major players involved in difficult situations.[1] In this post we explore the potential of simulations to support high school students in understanding complex security themes.

In each of three simulations—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, and the detention of Omar Khadr in 2002—students were faced with the reality of making difficult choices in time-sensitive scenarios in which they had incomplete information. The simulation characters had diverse roles—a soldier, a civilian, a Central Intelligence Agency operative etc.—and each choice a participant made would have consequences for themselves, their community and their country’s security. Students grappled with questions of ethics and national security (who is considered a terrorist? what is the role of civilians turned militants in a conflict? what is an appropriate state response to a security threat?) and became more keenly aware of the inter-play of interests, behaviours and decisions.

By including both historical and contemporary scenarios, the simulation worked to show students the weight, magnitude and complexity of security decisions. The simulation presented challenging ideas to students in a way that they were able to concretize. This bridge between ideas and understanding was empathy. One tool to encourage empathetic reasoning this was the use of profile cards which provided a narrative of each simulation character. This prompted participants to think about their decisions through a particular lens—whether ideological, normative or through their character’s personality traits—particularly when they did not have complete information or intelligence. As the simulation progressed, students became increasingly invested in achieving their character’s objectives and ultimately in their character’s outcome.

There were, however, limitations to students’ ability to conceptualize the scenario. In the case of Omar Khadr, students found it challenging to consider the real or perceived conflict between security and civil liberties. Decisions were often based on consequences for an individual character, rather than on their mandate, an ethical code, or the population they represented.

Through two years of creating and running simulations with high school students, we have learned several lessons. Inclusion of the following elements can increase the relevance and success of the simulation:

  • Multiple facilitators with a strong grasp of the simulation’s characters, decisions and outcomes, and who can guide or challenge students and their decisions when necessary;
  • Commensurate educational materials that give greater historical context for the simulations and a foundational knowledge of key themes that can be taught before or after the simulation;
  • An incentive—such as a participation grade—to encourage students to treat the simulation as realistically as possible, and to invest in their character; and
  • Post-simulation discussion questions with adequate time to allow students to reflect on their experience. This is an opportunity for students to consider their decisions, help develop their own thought processes, and apply the simulation’s learnings to present day socio-political phenomena.

By commemorating the anniversary of WWI using simulation, students realized in more concrete terms the decisions that catalyzed the war. The simulation encouraged students to empathize with their character, make decisions based on the supplied information, and allowed to students to understand challenging concepts perhaps more quickly or fully than in the classroom alone. The simulation was also a valuable recruiting tool as it provided students an opportunity to reason through complex issues with the University of Waterloo students at the facilities of the Balsillie School. A coordinator’s package—based on the Guidelines for Ontario High School Curriculum—is available to high school teachers interested in using these simulation exercises. For more information about security simulations and for additional resources, please contact Dr. Veronica Kitchen.

About the authors: Zainab Ramahi recently graduated with her Bachelor of Knowledge Integration from the University of Waterloo. Amy Wood has a Master of Arts in Global Governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Together with Dr. Veronica Kitchen, they developed the security simulations discussed here. A CTE Teaching Story on Dr. Kitchen is available here.

[1] The simulation is also suitable for undergraduate classrooms and it was first conducted in a second year World Politics course taught by Dr. Veronica Kitchen.

Creating and Engaging at WCSE 2015 – Mary Power


A week ago I attended the Western Conference on Science Education – WCSE 2015, held at Western University in London, Ontario. This biennial conference brings together people passionate about STEM education from across Canada, and beyond, for three days of learning, community and fun. I have attended all three of these WCSE conferences (the first being in 2011) and I must say this has become THE conference I look forward to. What is it about WCSE that I find so rewarding? In reality it is the whole package. It is the perfect sized conference, my guess is about 150 attendees, which is large enough to have a variety of quality presentations and posters and a diversity of participants, yet small enough to generate a community. The organizers, Tom Haffie and Ken Meadows in particular, do a marvelous job of creating a welcoming and engaging atmosphere. Having reflected on my experience at WCSE this year, and in comparing notes with other UWaterloo attendees, I’d like to share a couple key take-aways.

In her keynote talk, Dr. Kimberly Tanner from San Francisco State engaged us in a superhero card sorting activity. This low tech activity very clearly demonstrated the difference between superhero novices and experts. I was a utter novice and grouped my superheroes base on external physical features eg., wearing of capes. I didn’t have a clue as to which were Avengers or Justice League, nor frankly was I aware that those were potential groupings. Dr Tanner and her colleagues have found that it is very similar novice intuitive thinking that can result in common misconceptions of basic biological principles (Coley & Tanner, 2015). As we think about trying to address our student’s misconceptions it is valuable to remember that “… the presence of misconceptions does not indicate deficits but rather a mind actively engaged with the world trying to construct explanations for complex phenomena” (Coley & Tanner, 2015). If we can help students identify where their intuition is not based on how we understand biological processes, for example, and guide them to develop their foundation knowledge we can help them on the path toward expert thinking. Engaging students in thinking about what they know going into a lesson, what they are confused about during the lesson and what they have learned after the lesson contribute greatly to deeper learning and understanding.

Another presentation that especially stood out for me was Simon Bates’ talk “Faculty and Students as collaborators, co-creators and makers”. He talked about his work engaging students in the creation of learning objects to explain physics concepts. In his introductory physics class students generate materials (such as a video, a module, a practice exam question) to explain a concept that is troublesome to them. These are vetted by TAs and subsequently shared with the entire class. Once again, we see students actively engaged in their learning and creating materials to teach their fellow students.

Active participation of students in the education process was a common thread throughout the conference. A large number of undergraduate students participated fully in the conference, both presenting and attending the sessions. Their voices and thoughts were invariably heard in each session I was at. This involvement of the students as complete partners was one of the things that made this conference special for me.

Perhaps the growth of our universities and the resultant large classes has made it feel that it is key to break down the anonymous “us and them” that so often exists in order to find a “we” so that can embark on the learning journey together. This conference with the theme Gather + Create + Improve, highlighted the work of educators trying to actively involve their students in the making of their knowledge, went a long way in the direction of that “we”, I can’t wait for 2017! In the meantime, how do you engage your students as knowledge creators in your classes?

Intuitive Thinking and Misconceptions. Coley & Tanner. CBE – Life Sciences Education (2015). 14:1-19.

Self Care 101: Protecting Your Mental Health

While the15884166831_5787d26901_z previous two blog posts in this series spotlighting mental health in the classroom focused on the issues facing students with mental health issues, and administrative solutions for some of these problems, the last segment in this series will widen the scope and focus on preventative care for everyone. It’s not just students that are feeling overwhelmed with university today – faculty members are also suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. It’s important to remember that no matter who you are, you can benefit from a little preventative mental health care.


In a high-paced academic environment, it’s easy to feel that any time not spent on academic pursuits is wasted. This mentality is common not only in uWaterloo but across many university campuses, and while it may lead to bursts of productivity and output, it also leads to a great deal of stress, exhaustion and misery. In order to avoid these outcomes, it’s important that students and faculty alike take time away from their work to practice self-care. Self-care can include almost anything that you enjoy. All that it truly means is setting aside some time from your day to treat yourself well.


Clichés, but….

  • Get some sleep
    • Allowing your body to reset during a full 8-9 hours of sleep per night will ensure that you go through each day with as much energy as possible. When you’re well rested, you don’t have to be constantly fighting against the urge to take a nap…and you’d be surprised at how much nicer the world seems!
  • Eat something
    • Along with getting enough sleep comes giving your body fuel. While it’s important to eat healthy, it’s more important to simply eat enough of food that you enjoy. If self-care for you is relaxing with a brownie, don’t feel guilty! Eating guiltless allows you to get rid of the expectations that you’ll always eat perfect and focus entirely on eating what makes you feel good. Sometimes that might be carrots, and other times cookies.
  • Drink some water
    • Just like your body needs food, it also needs hydration. If you feel tired, anxious or irritated, often getting a cold drink of water will rehydrate you, and you’ll find that you feel a little bit better.
  • Get off the couch
    • Even for a little while. Exercise gives us endorphins, or the ‘feel good’ chemical. Being active also gives you a chance to change your setting a little bit – so next time you feel stressed out and cooped up in your office, take a walk outside.

Don’t forget about the rest of your life!

  • Make time to see friends
    • It may seem like there’s no time to do anything but academia, but filling your life with only work can create a lot of stress. Making time in your week to see friends and just enjoy life can really take a load off of your shoulders and make going back to work a little easier.
  • Take a break!
    • Sometimes, all we really need to reduce stress and take care of our mental health is a real break from the things that are causing us stress. If you can’t face another second working on your research paper/thesis/marking, maybe it’s time to take half an hour and do something you really enjoy. The work will always be there when you get back.


All of these self-care tips are easy to implement into your daily life. They all boil down to one simple thing – there’s always time to take care of your mental health, and no matter what you’re doing, you deserve to be happy and enjoy your life.


New to Waterloo? Four fun tips – Veronica Brown

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a great discussion with some colleagues who, like me, are celebrating five years at their teaching centre this year. We were talking about what had helped us as we transitioned into our new roles. For me, an important factor was my institutional knowledge. Having completed my undergraduate degree at Waterloo, taught here, and worked in both an academic department and a support unit, there were lots of things I had learned over the years that you won’t find in orientation materials. I thought it would  be fun to share some of the things I have discovered along the way. These are in no particular order!

  • Need some inspiration? Check out the co-op students of the year. Each year, six students (one per Faculty) are selected based on their contributions to their employer, academic achievement, volunteer experience and other criteria. Their accomplishments, such as presenting their research at international conferences, raising capital for their start-ups, and developing new tools and processes, are impressive (and humbling)! I am a huge fan of co-operative education and look forward to reading about the award winners.
  • Microsoft Excel is your friend. Most of my career has involved teaching or managing large (e.g., 300 – 1000+) classes. There is tremendous value in being able to efficiently store grade data and analyse it. Even in small classes, tools like PivotTables or some of the basic functions in Excel (or any spreadsheet for that matter), can help you get a clearer sense of your students’ performance. Taking a course at Waterloo through the Skills for the Electronic Workplace program, or getting some help from a colleague, are great options to hone your spreadsheet skills.
  • You might need to find a different place to get your coffee once exams start. Not all Food Services locations are open during exams and those that are open might have reduced hours. The same is true for the student-run coffee shops. Check the hours of your favourite Food Services location on their Hours and Locations page.
  • Read the Daily Bulletin. The Daily Bulletin is an electronic bulletin, published each business day. I try to read it every day because it is a neat mix of news, announcements, celebrations, events and miscellaneous information from across campus. Check out the Daily Bulletin Archive to see posts from the past 20 years!

As we head into spring, I thought it would be nice to have one final look at a snowy campus.