Developing students for the real world through experiential education

Whether it’s growing E. coli cells in a petri dish for scientific experiment, conducting field work on marshes, or participating in a science outreach project in the community, the Faculty of Science offers students an array of experiential education (EE) opportunities.  

An undergraduate field course at the University of California Rancho Marino Reserve offers Faculty of Science students a real-world experience

An undergraduate field course at the University of California Rancho Marino Reserve offers Faculty of Science undergraduate students a real-world experience in collecting specimens and research data

“Experiential education is about exploring and experiencing the ideas learned in class through concrete experiences – which could be in the classroom or lab, at an organization or company, or in the community,” said Michael Scheid, associate dean of students in the Faculty of Science. “It leads to deeper learning and better preparation for life after graduation, including the job market.  

As a major hub of scientific research, the Faculty of Science provides a wide variety of research opportunities for our undergraduate students. These opportunities allow students to learn advanced lab skills, use equipment that they would not typically use in an undergraduate lab, interact with graduate students, learn in-depth in a particular field, and actually contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge.  

For instance, for the last three years, the Faculty of Science has offered Dean’s Undergraduate Research Awards (DURAs) to top students to gain hands-on research experience in a York University research lab. DURAs are 16-week paid summer positions. These positions give more students exposure to what frontline research really involves and help them learn new skills and make informed choices about their career paths. 

DURA recipient Ellahe Fatehi conducting summer research in 2019

DURA recipient Ellahe Fatehi conducting summer research in 2019

These same students are invited to present their research either orally or through a poster at the annual Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Summer Undergraduate Research Conference, alongside NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award students and York Science Scholar Award winners. All these students learn how to explain their research to those not involved in the research – a valuable skill they can continue to draw upon throughout their studies and beyond their degrees. 

“The event is an excellent opportunity for students to present their summer research projects, practice science communication, and meet and learn from other students,” said Jennifer Steeves, associate dean of research and graduate education in the Faculty of Science. 

Students take part in a field course at the Kortright Conservation Centre

Students take part in an off-campus field course at the Kortright Conservation Authority

The Faculty of Science also offers field courses where students learn science outside of lecture halls and indoor laboratories, sometimes as far away as China, Africa or South America. Field courses are a vital part of today’s university learning. One summer offering as a course shared between the Department of Biology and the Department of Geography relies on off-campus field experiences at the Kortright Conservation Authority, where students put their research skills to use measuring soil infiltration rates or studying marshes and watershed management. 

“Over the years, we have worked hard to provide field course options that are affordable, accessible and inclusive for all students seeking to experience ecology and environmental science field research,” says Faculty of Science Professor Dawn Bazely.  

There are also opportunities for students to participate in field courses outside of York University. The Ontario Universities Program in Field Biology (OUPFB) is a consortium of 15 Ontario universities, including York University, that have collaborated for 30 years by sharing enrollment places on the field courses offered by different universities. In this way, students at one university have access to 25 to 30 field courses each year at diverse locations, each offering an authentic field research experience. 

Faculty of Science undergraduate students have many opportunities to participate in research conferences

Faculty of Science undergraduate students have many opportunities to participate in research conferences

In addition, the Departments of Biology and Chemistry offer undergraduate students the opportunity to complete non-credit, pass/fail research practicum courses to obtain practical experience in a lab or in the field. Students arrange with a faculty member to participate in their research and complete a student-supervisor agreement that outlines the tasks and expectations. Students in these courses learn current research techniques and use these techniques to make a meaningful contribution to the supervisor’s research program. The opportunities are meant to enrich and stretch beyond what is available in other courses. 

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