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Pauline and Jennie at the University of Western Sydney
Pauline Ross was first trained as a teacher and then completed her PhD in experimental ecology at the University of Sydney. Some years later, she was teacher educator, but has continued with her biology research program during her 12 years at UWS. She has been a successful academic scientist by all the conventional measures. She has published her research, won personal awards, secured grants and industry collaborations, attained promotions and supervised postgraduate students and award-winning Honours students. Recently, she has been invited to contribute to both professional publications and high school text books.
But Pauline did not want to talk about any of this.
Instead, she chose to discuss an equally consuming passion; that of infusing the next generation of scientists with a belief of the possibilities which they have within themselves. She nominated Jennie Nelson as her collaborator, asking herself, “How could I have successfully implemented innovative practices in biology if it were not for Jennie and the staff which she leads, convinces and humours?” This collaborative nature of their relationship is confirmed by Jennie, who feels that she has benefited from Pauline’s generosity of time given in order to mentor and guide the whole teaching team, which includes the technical staff and junior tutor/demonstrators. Jennie thinks Pauline has a unique ability to see value in all people and to appreciate their intelligence and their contribution to improving the overall student experience.
Jennie Nelson has worked in the technical support area at UWS for much of her
working life. During that time, she has gained a B.App.Sci (Environmental
Health), and has undertaken a variety of postgraduate studies in both science
and business. At present, her professional interests centre around a long-term
involvement with OH&S and its appropriate application to the burgeoning teaching
programs in forensic science.
Jennie is calm and efficient in the way she organises almost anything to do with a laboratory. If you have an out-of-the-ordinary request, she will listen patiently and do her best (usually successfully) to make it all happen for you. She can conjure up any type of equipment or arrange a demonstration for a lab class; she is willing to spend extra time to prepare a vacation workshop, or do some last-minute emergency photocopying job if you forgot to have some notes printed. If she doesn’t know something or someone, she will quietly go and find out.
Pauline appreciates Jennie’s willingness to agree to her suggestions for novel biology lab classes, and to actually find practical ways to implement them. She thinks their successful working relationship is symbolised by their ‘hall of failures’ which, by complementing the ‘hall of successes’, helps remove the fear of making mistakes and enables them to reflect on which teaching strategies effectively help the students learn, and (more importantly), why. This models the ‘safe’ environment they provide for students in the laboratory, allowing them to feel free to learn by their mistakes without feeling they will be branded silly or stupid.
Jennie notices that Pauline’s mind is ticking over all the time, and because some of her ideas seem to come completely out of left field they certainly raise eyebrows when they are first suggested. The phrase ‘doing a Pauline’ has been occasionally heard echoing around the corridors, but neither Pauline nor Jennie have taken any offence, and now they have the satisfaction of noticing that some of these ‘way-out’ techniques have been so successfully implemented that they have become staple laboratory exercises at UWS. People are even sometimes proud of doing “what Pauline might do.”
Although their interests and responsibilities are different, Pauline and Jennie have trodden some parallel paths. They are the same age (within 3 weeks), have wide-ranging interests and a zany (but enigmatic) sense of humour. Both of them have combined full-time careers and extracurricular studies or research with family responsibilities.
Pauline is continually amazed and delighted by Jennie’s remarkable organisational abilities, given her high workload and limited technical support staff. The natural bond between them has lead to many shenanigans in the tea-room, about which Pauline refuses to elaborate. There is one instance that stands out, when she trusted Jennie’s instincts enough to follow instructions to go home IMMEDIATELY – resulting in the safe delivery of her first baby, well away from the student laboratory!
Jennie comments that Pauline is “one of the most interesting academics I’ve had the pleasure of working with in over 30 years in tertiary education.” She admires Pauline’s attempts to find new ways to present standard Biology concepts to ensure that students can more easily conceptualise and understand these ideas.
Pauline had not been working at UWS for very long when she won a contract for an AusAid project to the Republic of the Maldives to teach a 3-week technical training course at the Institute of Teacher Education (ITE) in Malé. She immediately recommended Jennie as an ideal technical officer to accompany her in preparing the materials and training the local teachers. Jennie thought it was ‘incredible’ that Pauline had the confidence in her to complete the consultancy competently. Pauline was surprised that Jennie was surprised, as the project required a technician who could work in a country with limited resources and train a member of staff who could take over. She feels that Jennie has many talents – she underrates her abilities. The partnership worked exceptionally well, and they are both justifiably proud of the outcomes of this project: the Institute of Teacher Education has now transformed into the Maldives College of Higher Education. Pauline thinks that Jennie’s work in the Maldives has made a significant contribution to the lives of children in that country.
Jennie has opened Pauline’s eyes to the scientific value and beauty of microscopic algae, particularly diatoms and desmids on which she has undertaken postgraduate research. Pauline was so intrigued that she has since incorporated them into her 3rd year Environmental Biology course and sought to learn more about them. Jennie is also proud that she has introduced Pauline to the value of online teaching techniques, and she was instrumental in acquiring the equipment and expertise to enable digital microscopic photography to be implemented across a range of large biology lab classes. Initially, Pauline felt that such things were going to take her too much time to master and her time was already over-committed. However, as usual, once she saw the possibilities, Pauline’s imagination took hold and she now realises that the sky is the limit. Jennie reports that Pauline now wants sites that do everything possible (and some things that are almost impossible) to really engage with her audiences! Pauline responds that she finds it inspiring, and enjoys working in the environment where possibilities are possible – instead of potentially being frustrated by a list of the impossible.
Due to various structural changes within UWS in 2000, a variety of professional awards became open to competition from a much larger population of University staff. It was therefore with considerable pride that the members of the chemistry/biology “Innovative Educators” teaching team hung their framed certificates in the corridors for all to see. These plaques proclaimed: “VC Excellence in Teaching Award (Highly Commended)”. Both Jennie and Pauline were members of this team. Although both have since won other awards in their own special fields, this one had special significance because it acknowledged the successful long-term collaboration of academics from different disciplines with sessional tutors/demonstrators and technical staff.
Pauline thinks that she should be more formally involved in collaborative projects of this type, as the inclusion of everyone’s ideas and efforts proved what a strong teaching team we have.
Jennie comments that technical staff are often overlooked when things run smoothly. It’s called the ‘curtain of invisibility’. They only really become ‘visible’ when things go wrong and they are needed to put them right. Inclusion in the award application was an expression of the fact that the academics involved realised that technical staff are part of the team, and are valued and appreciated for their professional contribution to the innovative education which the award celebrated.
Pauline has recently had (temporary) freedom from the day-to-day of teaching 400+ first-year students. She has been seconded as a Teaching Fellow, helping other science educators at UWS to see the value of rigorous pedagogy within their own teaching regimes. This has given her time for some reflection on her ‘hall of successes’ and ‘hall of failures’. If you want to read the details of some of the activities, which have included: dissecting Play-Doh cells; constructing jelly cytoplasm and paper-plate chloroplasts; doing amazing things with lollies, clothes pegs and striped socks; dancing the Respiration Reel; role playing a moss life-cycle, or hand-passing imaginary electrons and photons around in a large lecture theatre – along with student evaluations of their effectiveness in conceptual understanding – a few of the details can be found in the following publications1,2,3,4,5. Jennie is proud that she again put in extra-curricular ‘hours’ to ensure the manuscripts reflected what actually happened and that photographs were of an adequate standard!
Where are Jennie and Pauline headed next? While discussing this article, both of them complimented each other that they could still get excited about their work ‘after all this time’. As an observer, I can see that this will continue. They will always be curious and somewhat analytical about the world around them. They compulsively continue to learn new things – and seek new ways to learn. They find ways of applying knowledge from their past experience to new situations and have projects (individually and together) in the planning stage that will keep them occupied ‘until the end of their days’. In my opinion, this attitude is the mark of true scientists.
To Jennie and Pauline, “I dip my lid!”
Pauline Ross and Deidre Tronson (2004) “Towards conceptual understanding: bringing research findings into the lecture theatre in tertiary science teaching” Proceedings of Scholarly Inquiry into Science Teaching and Learning Symposium, p 52. ISBN 86487 665 4, Uniserve Science, Sydney, Australia.
Pauline Ross, Deidre Tronson and Raymond J.Ritchie (2005) “Modelling Photosynthesis to Increase Conceptual Understanding” Journal of Biological Education 40 (2): 84-88.
Pauline M.Ross, Susan L. Siegenthaler and Deidre A. Tronson (2006) “Assessment for Learning and Motivation” in “Assessment in Science Teaching and Learning”, Proceedings of Uniserve Science Symposium, Sept 28th, Uniserve Science, University of Sydney, Australia ISBN 1 86487 865 7 pp 120-125.
Pauline Ross and DA Tronson (2005) “Modelling creativity in tertiary science teaching” Effective Teaching and Learning Conference, 3-4th Nov. University of Queensland, Australia. Abstract only at http://www.tedi.uq.edu.au/ETLConference/ETL_Conference_Abstracts.pdf [accessed 25th Nov 2006].
Author’s by-line: My name is Deidre, and I am now a hermit who grows Gondwanan flowers. When I was a chemistry/biochemistry educator, Pauline helped me in practical and philosophical ways to enter the realm of science education research. I am now proud to reciprocate the honour by being her Muse.
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