Escape rooms and VR: York faculty, programs win provincial honour

gold and red stars

Sponsored by Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities, the Minister’s Awards of Excellence highlight the incredible work of professors, instructors, staff and graduate students on campus, in the community and beyond.

The awards program began in 2020 and today highlights the exceptional performance of universities and colleges in five categories:

  • Everyday Heroes: Faculty and staff who have stepped up and made a difference during the 2021-22 academic year.
  • Future-Proofing Ontario’s Students: Faculty and staff who have led the way in adapting programs that support new ways of learning.
  • Equality of Opportunity: Faculty and staff who have excelled at creating opportunities in postsecondary education for marginalized and underrepresented groups.
  • Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Faculty and staff who are working with industry and business to drive economic development.
  • Rising Star: Graduate students, faculty and staff who are under 35 and are making a difference in education, inspiring students or carrying out innovative research in the postsecondary education sector.

Since it was announced on Feb. 7 that the 2021-22 winners had been finalized, several York University faculty and initiatives have received recognition for their exceptional work. Here they are:

Assistant professors Kristine Pedernal and Andria Phillips

Pedernal and Phillips of the Faculty of Health’s School of Nursing received an Award of Excellence in the category Future-proofing Ontario’s Students, which highlights faculty and staff who have been innovation leaders in adapting programs that support new ways of learning.

Kristine Pedernal
Kristine Pedernal
Andria Phillips
Andria Phillips

Pedernal and Phillips were recognized for developing and utilizing virtual “escape rooms” to assess nursing students’ learning. Undergraduate nursing programs rely on experiential clinical experiences that are required for professional licensure – something that became difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The professors’ solution used the concept of cooperative gameplay to create virtual escape rooms that simulated clinical scenarios in which students worked together to gather clues and solve puzzles that facilitated priority-setting, clinical reasoning, and problem-solving skills. When giving the award, Minster of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop praised how their work “has brought exceptional benefits to students, Ontario’s postsecondary community and beyond.”

Assistant Professor Kyle Belozerov and Associate Professor Derek Jackson

Kyle Belozerov
Kyle Belozerov
Derek Jackson
Derek Jackson

An Award of Excellence in the Future-proofing Ontario’s students category was also presented to professors Belozerov and Jackson of the Department of Chemistry for their work with virtual reality. Motivated by the desire to help students learn the structure and behavior of complex molecules, the team leveraged the unique capabilities of VR to teach students about these molecules in a completely new, immersive and engaging, as well as accessible and equitable, way.

The team developed a variety of interactive VR activities designed to help students manipulate molecules and research crucial aspects of the structure underlying their reactivity and biological function. The ability to mentally manipulate complex objects in three-dimensional space, known as “3D literacy,” is a crucial skill for all students majoring in STEM disciplines, and it is highly valued in the modern science and technology work environment.

The kindergarten to industry (k2i) academy

Lassonde School of Engineering building

The Minister’s award category Equality of Opportunity acknowledges faculty and staff who have excelled at creating opportunities in post-secondary education for marginalized and underrepresented groups. Among the winners this year was the Lassonde School of Engineering’s k2i academy, which was recognized for its work inspiring underrepresented youth in STEM, which includes initiatives like de-streaming Grade 9 science, shepherding its Indigenous Engineering & Innovation by Design program, and moving forward with its forthcoming launch of a STEM program for Black youth.