Student learning, experience and success top priorities in the Faculty of Science

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Welcome to the March 2024 edition of Innovatus, a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning at York University. This month we showcase the Faculty of Science and the innovative projects it is pursuing to support students.

Innovatus is produced by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching & Learning in partnership with the Communications & Public Affairs Division.

In this issue, the Faculty of Science invites York community members to read stories about improving students’ learning experiences within the classroom and across continents.

Rui Wang
Rui Wang

In the Faculty of Science, we are driven to provide students with a high-quality education and the knowledge, skills, competence, and credentials they need and desire to successfully transition into rewarding and impactful careers. We are delighted to share some of the ways in which we are prioritizing excellence in teaching and learning in this issue of Innovatus

Our Faculty has been working hard to create new, hands-on programs and micro-credentials that train students for in-demand careers in industries like biotechnology and vaccine development. For instance, this fall at the new Markham Campus, we are launching graduate-level programming in biotechnology management that features industry-informed curriculum, practical learning and experiences, business training and more.  

Our instructors and staff are leading projects that aim to enhance student learning and experience in some of our existing programs, including projects focused on creating fully accessible labs for our students and using new technology to transform conventional learning in chemistry courses. Our teams are also piloting a popular, online problem-solving tool for our mathematics students. 

As well, we are strengthening our global connections and partnerships with institutions and students across the world. For example, we are creating collaborative virtual exchange opportunities that allow science students to engage in cross-cultural learning with peers from other countries and cultures. 

The Faculty of Science is a place where curious minds come to learn, to discover, and to develop skills to become future global leaders and innovators. Our instructors and staff take this responsibility seriously, and as dean, I couldn’t be prouder of them. I also couldn’t be more optimistic for the future success of our students. 

Thank you, 

Rui Wang, 
Dean, Faculty of Science 

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form.

In this issue:

Faculty of Science responds to industry needs in the chemical and bioeconomy sectors
To meet the needs of the booming biotechnology industry, the Faculty is offering several new educational opportunities for York students to succeed in the sector.

Faculty of Science innovates with assist from AIF
Thanks to support from Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) grants, two initiatives are helping create more interactive and accessible science lab spaces.

Mathematicians pilot open-access homework platform for students
A new, online open educational resource provided to students for free is looking to make math homework a little bit easier.

Inaugural GNL project brings students together
A globally networked learning (GNL) initiative that began during the COVID-19 pandemic is still going strong, connecting science students from York University and China.

Faculty of Science responds to industry needs in the chemical and bioeconomy sectors

Science student in a lab

By Elaine Smith

To meet the changing needs of the chemical and bioeconomy sectors, the Faculty of Science is offering several new educational opportunities to ensure people working in science-related positions have the best possible education to meet evolving industry demands.

The Faculty has recently introduced two new biotechnology programs at the Markham Campus – the Master’s in Biotechnology Management and the Graduate Diploma in Biotechnology – as well as a new micro-credential in Vaccine Production and Quality Control that is aligned with these programs. 

The Faculty also introduced its first micro-credential, NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) Spectroscopy for Industry at the Keele Campus. NMR spectroscopy is an advanced characterization technique used to determine the molecular structure of a sample at the atomic level. 

“We want to offer our students programs and courses that lead to career success,” said Hovig Kouyoumdjian, associate dean of curriculum and pedagogy for the Faculty.  

Luz Adriana Puentes Jácome
Luz Adriana Puentes Jácome

Slated to launch in Fall 2024, the Graduate Diploma in Biotechnology and the Master’s in Biotechnology Management are the culmination of research and planning done over the past few years. Professor Mark Bayfield and associate deans Kouyoumdjian and Michael Scheid led the program design and development. Now, Jade Atallah and Luz Adriana Puentes Jácome, assistant professors of biology, teaching stream, have taken the reins and will oversee the two programs. 

“Both programs are rooted in industry needs,” Atallah said. “Our colleagues did extensive research to ensure industry alignment; an evidence-based approach is driving them.”  

The Toronto Business Development Centre, for example, notes that “Canada has experienced a 77.2 per cent growth in biotech companies in the past two decades, with hundreds of small startups working to bring scientific discoveries to market.” 

The two programs will share biotechnology courses for the first year, but the master’s students will also take management courses through the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies that will allow them to graduate with the degree and diploma in under two years. The integrative program also includes a capstone course and a paid internship component with industry. The diploma program requires only two semesters of coursework.  

“They are both full-time programs but are designed to accommodate mature, working students in terms of scheduling,” said Atallah.  

The master’s program aims to meld scientific knowledge with business skills. 

“The interdisciplinary approach better reflects the workplace reality and maximizes understanding of the overall product lifecycle from conception to commercialization,” said Atallah. “It’s a marriage of two Faculties and will provide well-rounded knowledge and skills in both areas. It will increase the students’ competitiveness while benefiting the biotech economy.” 

Puentes Jácome agreed, noting, “We want these students to be very versatile. They need the professional biotechnology knowledge, but the business background will be very useful in the startup economy, while in established companies, it will give them the skills to move around.” 

The two programs have a joint lab component, and students in both programs will benefit from industry guest speakers and networking opportunities. 

“We want our students to have hands-on insights and experiential opportunities,” Atallah said. 

The lab component of the course will give students a condensed experience in biotechnology laboratory techniques.  

“It is not a cookbook lab,” said Atallah, referring to the usual step-by-step instructions students receive for lab experiments. “Students will be able to make decisions on the best protocol to use, and there’s room for mistakes, so they can troubleshoot and adjust. It will mimic a real-life scenario.” 

The master’s degree internships, arranged in collaboration with the experiential education office at the Markham Campus, will last between eight and 12 months. Students will have the opportunity to put their theory to the test. The capstone course, which is project-based, will also provide a real-world opportunity. 

Alongside these programs, the Faculty of Science at Markham Campus will also introduce a micro-credential on Vaccine Production and Quality Control. This specialized course aims to provide participants with the essential skills required to use biotechnological tools for the development of vaccines. 

The introduction of the micro-credential in NMR is spurred by the government of Ontario’s push for and support of post-secondary education rapid training programs designed to help people retrain or upgrade their skills to meet the needs of employers.   

Now, the Faculty of Science is dipping its toes in those waters, inaugurating the NMR Spectroscopy for Industry micro-credential during the Winter 2024 term and developing the micro-credential addressing Vaccine Production and Quality Control. 

“We’re very excited about this,” said Kouyoumdjian. “We looked at the demands of the job market, as well as the gaps in training, and gauged the need for these skills.” 

The NMR micro-credential course is taught by York University instructor Howard Hunter. Students will learn the basic theory behind NMR spectroscopy, as well as its practical applications. They will learn to successfully process and analyze raw NMR data to understand a sample’s composition or chemical structure, a skill applicable to employees in both chemical and biotechnological fields.   

The course is held in the evening, so people employed in related fields can fit it into their schedules. The hybrid course is pass/fail, with a lab component included.  

“For us, as scientists, the hands-on aspect is important,” Kouyoumdjian said. “It’s the nature of our field. We design our micro-credentials to contain in-person experiential components and avoid the fully asynchronous online model as much as possible.” 

Those who pass will receive both a certificate of completion and an electronic credential badge to affix to a resume or a LinkedIn profile. Kouyoumdjian will approve the badges based on course results; they are authenticated and traceable. 

Much like the students are learning new skills, Kouyoumdjian and his team did, too. Throughout the process, they had to learn how to create a micro-credential offering, from proposal to approval to creating contracts, hiring an instructor and promoting the program online. This accumulated knowledge will be used for introducing the aforementioned Vaccine Production and Quality Control micro-credential course. 

“As biotechnology continues reshaping how health care works, professionals with such expertise play an important role in progressing this field, especially with the urgent global need for effective disease prevention.” Kouyoumdjian said. “We are looking forward to offering the new micro-credentials, as well as the two new graduate programs.” 

Kouyoumdjian applauds the Faculty for making these new offerings possible. 

“Like any new initiative, it takes a team to bring these programs to fruition,” he said. “We are looking forward to expanding the knowledge of many students and observing their subsequent career accomplishments.” 

Mathematicians pilot open-access homework platform for students

student writing math on chalkboard BANNER

By Elaine Smith

Thanks to the availability of WeBWorK, an online open educational resource (OER) provided to students at no cost, homework shouldn’t be as stressful as usual for the hundreds of York University students enrolled in the Linear Algebra (MATH 1025) course this term.

Andrew McEachern
Andrew McEachern

WeBWorK allows them to practise solving challenging problems as often as they’d like and provides instantaneous feedback.  

“In mathematics, you need to practise, and with this system, you can keep trying until you get it right,” said Andrew McEachern, an assistant professor and course director for linear algebra. “For retention, research shows that engaging with problems multiple times is best. We want students engaged and practising, and this system allows for low, no-stakes practice. There is no cost for failure.” 

Online homework platforms aren’t new, but many of them are costly for students since they are owned by textbook publishing companies.  

“Textbook companies have proprietary rights to their platforms and many of them have a lot of bells and whistles that we don’t need,” McEachern said. “This bare-bones system works and does 90 per cent of the job that expert systems do.” 

WeBWorK is open source and very customizable. This means it can be downloaded for free, although there are significant costs associated with the server and staff resources. The Faculty of Science is covering these costs to provide the software free of charge to students. 

The IT team photo shows (L to R): Steven Chen, Kalpita Wagh, Violeta Gotcheva
The information technology team photo (left to right):
Steven Chen, Kalpita Wagh and Violeta Gotcheva.

McEachern and other instructors approached the Faculty about installing WeBWorK and joined forces with Hovig Kouyoumdjian, associate dean of curriculum and pedagogy, and Violeta Gotcheva, director of information technology (IT) for the Faculty, to explore the idea. Gotcheva, along with Steven Chen, a systems administrator, and Kalpita Wagh, an IT learning technology support specialist in the Faculty of Science, met with instructors and IT support teams from other Canadian universities to discuss their experiences with WeBWorK. They also joined the worldwide WeBWorK user group to expand their understanding of its applicability and support requirements.  

Although faculty members assumed the IT staff could easily upload the software and run it, Gotcheva explained to them that supporting the platform was more complicated. 

“It’s essential to ensure any software we run has appropriate security, robustness, reliability and scalability,” she said. “This is accomplished by obtaining a server hosting service aligned with the software requirements and hiring skilled staff for system maintenance and user support. After determining this, we realized we needed to install the open-source WeBWorK platform relying on community support.” 

Gotcheva, in collaboration with Kouyoumdjian, McEachern, and Michael Haslam and Stephen Watson – current and former Chairs of the Department of Mathematics & Statistics, respectively – created a business case for running the platform. They outlined the financial requirements for hosting and maintaining it and the cost savings that would accrue to students compared to the need for a proprietary platform. The Faculty of Science IT team partnered with Pamela Mills, assistant manager of University Information Technology System Management Services, and her team to use the University enterprise virtual server hosting. The WeBWorK pilot received a grant from the Faculty of Science Academic Equipment Fund to cover the server hosting costs, and the Faculty of Science IT team proceeded with the installation. 

Now, the pilot is underway in all the linear algebra sections during the winter term. 

“Testing the platform across all sections of the course was a bold move, as initially, we anticipated it being piloted only in Andrew’s section,” said Koyoumdjian. “We eagerly look forward to hearing about the experiences from both the faculty and the students.” 

So far, said McEachern, instructors haven’t discovered any insurmountable problems with the platform, and the more than 700 students studying linear algebra this term seem satisfied. He has paired the homework platform with an online help forum on social media platform Discord to provide students with a means for asking questions and getting answers quickly. 

“It’s amazing how many times other students pitch in with answers before I even get to the question,” McEachern said. “They just do it out of the goodness of their hearts.” 

He also said his students are reporting much less anxiety about their homework than usual. 

After the term is over, he, the other instructors and the team will review the success of the pilot, examining usage statistics and trends. They are also considering an informal survey of participants. 

“It’s easy to use and it’s cost-effective during tough economic times,” said McEachern. “In my opinion, if even one student benefits, it’s worth it.” 

Kouyoumdjian also sees it as a tool for student retention.  

Hovig Kouyoumdjian
Hovig Kouyoumdjian

“Mathematics is a foundational subject, and by enriching our students’ practice opportunities, we set them up for success and better equip them for future career endeavours” he said. “This pilot is a stepping stone, and we plan to extend the use of this platform to other math courses. We’ve also received positive feedback from colleagues outside our Faculty, who expressed enthusiasm for implementing WeBWorK at York University, which indicates a growing interest in adopting such powerful open-source platforms in their own courses as well.”  

In addition, noted Gotcheva, the United Nations considers OERs a public good, which aligns well with the York University Academic Plan’s commitment to furthering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

“The Faculty of Science is committed to OERs,” said Kouyoumdjian. “Our aim is to promote the use of resources that are economically more feasible for our students and flexible enough to be reused, revised, remixed and redistributed. WeBWork aligns with these standards of OERs.” 

Inaugural GNL project brings students together

close up of china on a globe BANNER

By Elaine Smith

The COVID-19 pandemic made student mobility and exchange programs challenging, but Hugo Chen, director of international collaborations and partnerships for York University’s Faculty of Science, found a way to provide students with a global engagement opportunity nonetheless, by turning to globally networked learning (GNL). Now, post-pandemic, the GNL initiative – his Faculty’s first – is still going strong.

Hugo Chen
Hugo Chen

GNL, also known as collaborative online international learning virtual exchange (COIL-VE), refers to an approach to research, learning and teaching that enables students, faculty and non-academic researchers from different locations around the world to participate in, and collaborate on, knowledge-making processes and concrete research projects. It dovetails nicely with York’s University Academic Plan and its priority of advancing global engagement, as well as the Faculty of Science’s Strategic Plan with its goal of creating “more opportunities for all students to have international exchange and field course experiences.”  

It also reflects the University’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being, by contributing to students’ overall mental health and resilience; SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, by promoting intercultural understanding and dialogue; and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goal, by emphasizing the importance of global partnerships in achieving sustainable development. 

“Many students found the pandemic stressful because they were stuck at home and their opportunities for international exchange were curtailed,” Chen said. “Although I was relatively new to York, I was experienced in international education and knew the benefits of GNL, or COIL-VE, as it is often called.  

“The Faculty of Science hadn’t tried GNL previously, but I want to be an innovator and decided to facilitate some cross-cultural communication.” 

With support from York International, the office that supports GNL initiatives at York, Chen reached out to Xin Wang, an associate professor at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China. The duo, and an administrative colleague there, agreed to organize a series of Zoom sessions to bring students from York’s Faculty of Science together with students from Northeastern’s School of Information Science & Engineering to increase intercultural understanding.  

At York, Chen invited members of the group Global Leaders of York Science (GLYS) to participate. GLYS is a volunteer team that works closely with Chen’s office to support the Faculty’s international initiatives, provide undergraduate students with professional development opportunities to enhance their employability skills and help them develop a global mindset. A total of 35 GLYS members and Northeastern students took part in the initial cross-cultural sessions. They began with an international coffee chat over Zoom in November 2021. 

Participants in Hugo Chen's GNL project connecting through Zoom chat.
Participants in Hugo Chen’s GNL project connecting through Zoom.

“My objective was to have them meet and talk about their own experiences,” said Chen, who is a certified sociocultural competency training facilitator. “The important thing was to build understanding and exposure around different cultures.” 

A joint organizing committee comprising students from both universities created a series of virtual sessions, each lasting an hour and a half. The topics they chose included a comparison of their education systems; mental health, including pandemic challenges; artificial intelligence; and the opportunities and risks of globalization. Of course, there was also informal discussion about their favourite books and music, hobbies and interests. 

“I suggested ideas, provided advice and was there to facilitate their conversations,” said Chen. 

After each session, he and his Northeastern colleagues asked students to provide feedback and suggest potential improvements.  

“This was an opportunity to broaden their world views without a huge cost,” said Chen. “Not all students can afford to travel abroad, so this makes international opportunities accessible and inclusive. Having such an experience may also encourage students to study or travel abroad later. There are benefits to exploring different perspectives and this project opens the door to those possibilities.” 

The success of the program was apparent in the comments students provided on their post-GNL surveys. 

“Engaging with students from different countries was enlightening,” wrote one student. “It’s fascinating to see how our approaches to science and education differ and, yet, how much we can learn from each other.” 

Another student added, “This program opened my eyes to different cultural perspectives and has given me friends from across the globe. I’m still in touch with my group members and we often discuss our academic and personal life.” 

Since 2021, Chen and his colleagues in China have run the program annually, with participants drawn primarily from GLYS. The composition of the group changes each time, with a mix of returning and new participants, and it continues to be popular. 

“One of the program’s most gratifying outcomes has been the formation of ongoing relationships and friendships among the participants that have transcended the program’s duration,” said Chen. “This speaks to the depth of the students’ engagement and the program’s success in forming meaningful international ties.  

“We also hope the students will choose York for their further studies.” 

Lassonde School of Engineering: shaping the student experience 

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Welcome to the February 2024 edition of Innovatus, a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning at York University. This month we showcase the Lassonde School of Engineering and highlight its unique and exemplary approaches to pedagogy.

Innovatus is produced by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching & Learning in partnership with the Communications & Public Affairs Division.

In this issue, the Lassonde School of Engineering invites York community members to read stories about co-op leadership and innovation, work-integrated learning and more.

As we work to nurture and empower our community of interdisciplinary creators, we are committed to fostering creativity and innovation. We do this by providing transformative education along with research and lifelong learning opportunities aimed to cultivate new ideas, knowledge and contribute toward a more sustainable world for all. 

Jane Goodyer
Dean Jane Goodyer

These efforts are demonstrated through the Lassonde School of Engineering 2022-23 Impact Report, a comprehensive microsite encapsulating our community’s remarkable journey and accomplishments. The achievements underscore our collaborative efforts, showcasing our commitment to excellence in engineering education and research as we make strides toward realizing our Strategic Academic Plan.

As a school centred on engineering and science, our ideas and conversations consistently revolve around exploring innovative, cross-disciplinary teaching methods that integrate technology and humanistic approaches. We actively involve our students in exciting projects, ranging from the OSIRIS-REx mission to the $318.4-million Connected Minds initiative, and through our two new, recently-established organized research units.  

Our faculty members are focused on addressing global issues, aligning with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, empowering our students to work together to build a better future. Interdisciplinary collaboration is ingrained in the essence of Lassonde, evident not only in our labs and classrooms but also in our innovative modes of learning, like C4: The Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom and tech stewardship. 

C4 is a unique feature at York, allowing students to develop and hone transferrable skills while learning the value of multiple perspectives in research and problem solving. In addition, our faculty members, including professors Franz Newland and Hossam Sadek, are reimagining engineering capstones, contributing to publications and practical tools to support the design and facilitation of such future projects.  

Additionally, tech stewardship is crucial for students to get involved in shaping the arc of technology toward positive ends, teaching them valuable skills. Collaborating with partners like the Engineering Change Lab, we’ve integrated their tech stewardship practice program into one of our courses, an initiative led by Professor Jeffrey Harris. As co-investigators into its potential impact, Lassonde recently received a $998,000 grant from the Suncor Energy Foundation to continue this vital work. 

The fall of 2023 witnessed the launch of our Engineering Block Model, transforming how students engage with coursework. This unique model allows deep immersion in each subject, reducing the need for multitasking and fostering a more focused classroom environment. As we examine its impact on our inaugural cohort of 70 students, we eagerly anticipate its potential to shape the future of engineering education. 

Students are at the heart of what we do, and this year, we reimagined the academic orientation experience, engaging hundreds of first-year students in a more interactive and dynamic way. We’ve also introduced the Lassonde Undergraduate Student Advisory Council to give students a direct voice to help improve our academic programs and their experience. The council has already facilitated important discussions on critical topics such as student enrolment, academic advising and degree progression. To enhance our processes, we’ve implemented a new case management system, saving hours of administrative work and allowing us to invest more in student support through this process, leading to a more positive student experience. We are working to expand its application to the petition process as well. Concurrently, we’ve established a group specifically for women students, fostering open dialogue in a safe environment.  

It’s important that our students can identify with the varied backgrounds of our faculty members and can envision themselves engaging in the research pursuits they are undertaking. The diversity of our faculty members is a key strength, helping us break down systemic barriers. Our researchers, who actively engage students in experiential learning while serving as mentors, include, among others, Professor Alvine Boaye Belle in electrical engineering and computer science; Professor Satinder Kaur Brar in water-related research; Professor Solomon Boakye Yiadom in advanced materials and manufacturing; Professor Uyen Trang Nguyen in anti-financial crime solutions; and Professor Regina Lee in advancements in nanosatellite technologies. 

Together, we are not just adapting to change in engineering and science education; we are driving it, shaping the future of teaching and learning at the Lassonde School of Engineering and beyond. I hope you enjoy this issue of Innovatus, discovering how we’re making a positive impact on our students, our community and the world through experiential education, technology-enhanced learning and internationalization. 


Jane Goodyer
Dean, Lassonde School of Engineering

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form, which is available here.

In this issue:

York’s k2i academy creates co-op leadership opportunities
Lassonde’s k2i academy is reimagining what science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education can look like by enlisting student mentors from its co-op program, offering paid work experience.

Lassonde’s digital technologies WIL program is off and running
This past year, Lassonde’s paid Work-Integrated-Learning (WIL) program – the first in Canada – saw students and faculty pioneer a new way to advance studies and careers. 

BEST summer co-op offers insights into entrepreneurship
The Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology (BEST) program is empowering students through a summer a co-op to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.

Creating accessibility through both research and training
The Practices in Enabling Technologies Lab, run by Professor Melanie Baljko, enlists students’ help in designing assistive devices to make life more accessible for people facing barriers. 

York’s k2i academy creates co-op leadership opportunities

scrabble board spelling out success team lead BANNER

By Elaine Smith

The Bringing STEM to Life: Work-Integrated Learning program at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering’s k2i academy provides opportunities for students from under-represented groups entering Grades 10, 11 and 12 to participate in a paid summer research project experience aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), ensuring they have the broadest possible career choices in the future. A critical component: mentors from Lassonde’s co-op program.

“We are here to reimagine how STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education can look,” said Michelle Tsui-Woods, associate director of operations and development for the k2i academy.

A valuable by-product of the k2i academy’s work is its success in training university students as mentors and leaders, reflecting Lassonde’s commitment to Creating Opportunities and a Welcoming Community, a theme in its new Strategic Academic Plan.

Each summer, k2i academy hires York students for four months of full-time work as paid mentors and mentor leads for Bringing STEM to Life. A number of these students are part of Lassonde’s co-op program, chosen to reflect the diverse backgrounds of the high-school students they will be mentoring.

Lassonde’s co-op program is designed to offer students relevant curricular experience by offering them the opportunity to gain relevant, paid work experience throughout their academic journey. It allows them to put the theories they have learned in class into practice while building their professional networks and becoming acclimated to the workplace.

Lassonde k2i mentors.
Lassonde k2i mentors.

To participate in Lassonde’s co-op program, students must have completed at least two years of study at Lassonde. Through alternating academic and work terms, students are required to undertake at least three co-op terms with at least a single school term between them to provide them time to reflect on and absorb the lessons learned. After successfully completing co-op terms of at least 12 to 20 months, students earn a co-op designation on their transcripts and graduate with experience generally required for an entry-level role.

In two years, k2i has employed 34 co-op students, helping Lassonde to become York’s leading co-op employer. More than 50 per cent of these students have been women and they have represented eight of the 10 Lassonde undergraduate degree programs. For 90 per cent of them, it was their first co-op experience.

“A lot of co-op students are concerned when they begin their first co-op term because they feel they don’t have many skills,” said Mayolyn Dagsi, manager of the co-op program and business partnerships for Lassonde. “The k2i team has been intentional about building skills for these students, not only around engineering attributes, but as leaders. Survey data indicate that everyone who goes through a k2i co-op has enjoyed it and found it rewarding. For many of these students, the leadership experience and skills gained through their roles as k2i program mentors contributed to their success in obtaining their next work term in industry.”

As part of their work experience, k2i co-ops students gain outstanding leadership experience, given the nature of their positions. The focus of their job is to work in pairs as mentors to a team of eight to 10 high-school lab assistants and to lead them through a research project that is related to a faculty member’s own research and the UN SDGs, which are highlighted in York’s University Academic Plan and reflected as a theme in Lassonde’s Strategic Academic Plan.

“Under-represented students in STEM need networks and role models. One of the best ways to provide that is to connect undergraduate STEM students as mentors, who are close in age, to project teams,” said Tsui-Woods. “The k2i mentors design and create exciting learning opportunities for high-school students, including hands-on experiences connected to real-world engineering challenges. During the co-op experience, the k2i mentors learn about themselves as leaders, developing professional skills that will strengthen their future opportunities.”

Krishnika Raveendranathan
Krishnika Raveendranathan

Krishnika Raveendranathan, a space engineering student in her final year of study, joined the k2i academy for a summer co-op term and worked as a mentor in 2023. She and a fellow mentor worked with their group of about 10 high-school lab assistants to create a smart-sensing light system using machine learning.

“It was a great experience,” she said. “I really like to help and I really enjoyed working with the students. They were almost my own age, so it was more like working with friends, rather than a teacher-student relationship.

“Working as a k2i mentor allowed me to develop my leadership skills greatly, because as a mentor you were involved in a lot of teaching and delivering presentations to mentor the students. It was also about collaborating with other mentors and being open to insights.” 

As July draws to a close, the mentors assist their team in preparing to present the results of their experiment at a STEM symposium with posters and demonstrations, so the mentors are busy coaching their teams in soft skills such as giving presentations and communication.

By August, as equipment is packed and stored, the mentors and mentor leads reflect on their experiences and learnings. They meet individually with k2i staff to review the summer, obtain feedback on their work and discuss growth opportunities. By September, they’re ready to return to their own classes, but – ideally – they are bringing stronger skills in leadership, mentoring, and diversity, equity and inclusion along with them.

“Building knowledge and experience in equity, diversity, and inclusion is an important part of transformational change in STEM education and STEM-sector industries,” said Lisa Cole, director of programming for the k2i academy. “Providing authentic experiences to build skills in practical applications within the workplace ensures that STEM undergraduate students become the kinds of leaders and changemakers our world needs.”

Lassonde’s digital technologies WIL program succeeding

student reading textbook while working

By Elaine Smith

The Lassonde School of Engineering’s new, paid work-integrated learning (WIL) program, the first in Canada, celebrated the successful launch of its first cohort – co-pioneers of a future where students can advance their studies along with their careers.

Eamon Ryan
Eamon Ryan

In fall 2023, Eamon Ryan was one of the 17 students fortunate enough to be part of the first WIL cohort when he began working full time for BMO while taking a full course load in the Integrated Program in Digital Technologies at Lassonde. After four years of full-time work and studies, he will graduate with a bachelor of applied science in digital technologies, specializing in either cybersecurity, data analysis or software development. After earning a salary for four years, he should also have minimal debt and a resume filled with workplace accomplishments.

“The director of the program calls us pioneers,” said Ryan. “This program is pretty much everything I ever wanted when it comes to academics and work.”

Consistent with the popular maxim, it took a village to get this visionary program off the ground – not surprising, perhaps, since one of the themes of Lassonde’s Strategic Academic Plan is Building Success Through Partnerships. This WIL program grew out of Dean Jane Goodyer’s vision and encompasses partners in the corporate community, York University administration as well as  Lassonde’s faculty and staff – especially those who will be teaching at the new Markham Campus and the Lassonde Educational Innovation Studio.

The program is just as new to employers as it is to the University.

“The employers’ comfort zone in Canada is with co-op terms and internships,” said Marily Molina, Lassonde’s business development manager. “They think of students as temporary; they are generally considered students first, employees second. We had to make this fit with student recruitment standards in Canada by offering employers the opportunity to hire students on a 12-month work term, which can be renewed on an annual basis. This gives employers the advantages of keeping the student in the same role or rotating them to other teams or departments based on business needs; saving them time in recruitment efforts and getting a higher return on investment in loyalty and retention.”

For faculty, the goal is to ensure that the students learn everything they would from a standard honours computer science program while balancing their work and personal commitments.

Kostas Kontogiannis

“It led us to countless hours of meetings with our colleagues at the Lassonde Education Innovation Studio,” said Professor Kostas Kontogiannis, director of the new program. “They advised us on pedagogical theories that suited this program and we combined that with our expertise to deliver the best possible result.

“These are completely new courses, because we have to keep pace with the workplace. We restructured the course sequence, their nature and how they fit together.”

The program runs year-round, with students adhering to their employer’s work calendar, although there is an 80/20 per cent split in their time, divided between work and blocks of time spent on campus. They are also allotted a half-day each week to work on course content.

The campus time is scheduled in blocks; after a three-week on-campus orientation, the students work in person with faculty for a week every month or two. While they are working, the students are also required to attend online lectures and complete assignments.

Luckily, they move through the program as a cohort, so they have support from their classmates as they study. They also each have a workplace mentor to ease their path in the working world as they adjust to being full-time employees.

“We’re building a culture where the students aren’t in competition with each other; instead, they are supporting each other within a true learning community,” said Jenny Peach-Squibb, a professional skills coach at Lassonde.

“We laid a solid foundation for them during their orientation block and they also went through employer orientation. In December, we heard from the employers that the time spent in onboarding really pays off.”

Peach-Squibb considers all the students in the program exceptional. They were first required to gain admission to Lassonde’s Digital Technologies program, before securing a job with one of the potential employers.

 “I have always been a hands-on learner, so the program appealed to me,” said Ryan, who is enjoying the entire experience: the workplace, his studies and his financial independence. The program’s salaries align with the average salary for co-op students in computer science and engineering, generally $23 to $27 per hour.

“At work, my manager walked me through everything and left to let me try things myself,” said Ryan. “I’m not being micro-managed and I learn better doing the work independently, but I’m not left without supports. And, before, I was financially reliant on my parents, but now I have financial independence; I’m sharing an apartment with my brother.

“The courses created for the program are great and showcase our learning. They use standards-based grading, so it’s all about learning and mastering concepts.”

Larry Zhang
Larry Zhang

Larry Yueli Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and one of the nine faculty members involved in the program, calls it “an additive process.”

“Students have a set of standards to meet, and they condition their actions to meet those targets,” he said. “It gives us a much more refined picture of student progress and better data on student performance.”

Added Kontogiannis, “As they are compiling a portfolio of their work, some of it can be put toward achieving these standards and meeting learning objectives.”

If Ryan’s supervisor is a good barometer, it’s not only the students and faculty who are pleased with the way this groundbreaking program is unfolding.

“Eamon happens to be a young man who is exceeding our expectations,” said Sajal Kumar, a database security architect at BMO. “At this young age, he has demonstrated a lot of maturity, drive, interest and professionalism. In fact, I usually have to give him fewer instructions than the others in the group.

“He is still every bit as impressive as he was on day one. If he continues to keep himself so motivated, he will do very well in life.”

Molina will be connecting with both the students and the employers twice a term to get a better understanding of how the program is unfolding. The goal is to grow the program in the coming years.

“For employers, the program provides access to new talent pipelines and addresses workplace labour shortages,” said Molina. “By removing cost barriers, the Digital Technologies program is designed to increase access to education for a wider spectrum of students. It’s a win-win situation.”

BEST summer co-op offers insights into entrepreneurship

woman enterpreneur presenting at white board

By Elaine Smith

Bergeron Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology (BEST), a Lassonde School of Engineering entrepreneurship program, offers students the opportunity to pursue their own startup venture or to spend a summer co-op term working with startup companies, contributing their technical expertise while seeing an entrepreneurial venture from the inside out. It is York University’s first entrepreneurial co-op program, allowing students to gain the knowledge and confidence to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams.

This past summer, 12 co-op students worked alongside six startup founders and had the opportunity to learn about building and running a business in their field. It was a meaningful opportunity to experiment with new ideas, take calculated risks, and learn from both successes and failures while tackling real-world business challenges. 

“We’ve had this [co-op] opportunity since 2016,” said Maedeh Sedaghat, manager of the BEST program. “In summer 2023, we opened it up to students who were very keen in gaining entrepreneurial experience by working with one of the BEST startups but not sure if they wanted to complete the full 12-month work term requirement necessary for a Lassonde co-op program designation. This approach has expanded this learning opportunity to more students across Lassonde.”

Faiza Qaisar
Faiza Qaisar

Among those who spent the summer participating in the entrepreneurial co-op term was computer engineering student Faiza Qaisar, who worked with Pantheon Prototyping, a BEST startup that specializes in 3D modelling and additive manufacturing for technical applications like rapid prototyping. She helped to develop an automated quoting software that allows a customer to: upload a 3D printable file; specify various parameters like quantity and material; automatically evaluate the printability of the model and any issues that it may contain; and, finally, provide the prospective customer with a price for creating the item, whether it be a keychain or an automobile part.

“We had a four-person software team and we created a tool good enough to launch,” said Qaisar. “The company is building on it as their engineering capstone project, working to develop payment software.”

Since doing her co-op term, Qaisar has enrolled in some BEST entrepreneurship courses and has started her own entrepreneurial venture, producing recyclable stickers and merchandise for organizations and York Orientation, an idea prompted by her love of art, her engineering and programming skills, and her concern about the environment. Her first order, in fact, was from Pantheon Prototyping, the startup company where she did her summer co-op term.

“The BEST co-op kicked me onto my track and inspired me to be entrepreneurial,” said Qaisar. “It inspired me to keep doing my own project.”

Che Lorde
Che Lorde

Mechanical design engineering student Che Lorde has also begun taking entrepreneurship courses through BEST after his summer co-op experience with HandiFuel, which advances accessible automated fuelling for mobility-challenged drivers. Lorde, who has a passion for 3D modelling and inclusive design, was chosen to lead a three-person mechanical team designing a way for drivers with accessibility issues to refuel their vehicles without leaving the driver’s seat.

“We wanted to make gas stations more accessible and break down barriers,” Lorde said. “To refuel a vehicle, it takes someone who is wheelchair bound an average of 12 minutes; we sped up the process to six minutes without requiring them to leave the car.”

Using an open-source design for a robotic arm, the team designed a claw that could access the fuel tank, remove its cap and use the gas pump’s nozzle to fill the tank. They worked within required constraints, including the necessity to avoid sparks in an environment with flammable gasoline present. It also meant doing research with potential users before designing, creating and testing the prototype.

“It was quite intense,” said Lorde. “We had four months to create a working prototype. There were times when things didn’t work and we had to reorient.”

Lorde is proud of his work, and he has also had his eyes opened to entrepreneurship. He dreams of using his design talents to contribute to inclusivity and has acquired many of the skills he needs to pursue this dream.

“The biggest takeaway for me is the importance of entrepreneurship in terms of engineering,” he said. “This co-op reassured me that what I’m doing is right for me. I also improved my soft skills in terms of communications, leadership and organizing my time, and I learned that in business, you have to understand your target audience. It’s a great experience, and having a leadership role is really helpful.”

BEST co-op terms are among the many and varied co-op opportunities available at Lassonde. All Lassonde students who have completed two years of study are eligible to apply. BEST startup founders review the applications, conduct interviews with the applicants and select their candidates.

“When we set up the Lassonde School more than 10 years ago, co-ops and entrepreneurship were key priorities and we were intent on joining these two things together,” said Richard Hornsey, associate dean, academic and students at Lassonde. “These co-ops give students a cutting-edge experience where everyone does a bit of everything and they are a realization of the founding priorities of Lassonde.”

Sedaghat highlighted the importance of entrepreneurship experience, especially in light of York’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, noting, “Promoting entrepreneurship is seen as a catalyst for positive economic and social change, fostering a culture of innovation, job creation and sustainable development.

“Entrepreneurship often involves the development and application of new technologies contributing to positive social change by tackling problems such as poverty, health-care disparities and environmental sustainability,” she said. The entrepreneurial mindset contributes to a culture of continuous learning, adaptability and risk-taking, which is even more crucial in today’s rapidly changing global economy.”

Lassonde’s BEST co-op program is only one of the Faculty’s transformative and enriching experiences for undergraduate students. Other opportunities include the UNHack and the BEST Startup Experience.

Creating accessibility through both research and training

accessible sign on colorful wall

By Elaine Smith

If the Lassonde School of Engineering wants to illustrate Empowering our People with Perspectives, Tools and Knowledge, a theme from its new academic plan, they have a perfect example close at hand: the research lab run by Melanie Baljko, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Melanie Baljko
Melanie Baljko

Baljko’s Practices in Enabling Technologies (PiET) Lab and her students – undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral – focus their research on making life more accessible for people facing barriers and involve the users in designing assistive devices to ensure their needs are met. Many of her researchers actually are the very people who face barriers.

“We hire only students with lived experience, if possible, and find a way to let the research be led by these folks,” Baljko said. “All of us without disabilities can only be allies and create space.”

Although she knows of only one North American research lab led by a neurodiverse researcher, Baljko hopes the students who train with her will help increase those numbers.

“I’m taking the long view,” Baljko said. “This isn’t a five-year plan. If I train an undergraduate and they go on to graduate school and postdoctoral work, it will take time for them to become part of the system, and the system also has to be ready to receive them.

“There is a lot of ableism built into the system and it may require us to unsettle things and change the status quo.”

As she provides valuable training to students, they become immersed in designing solutions for disabled people, but they don’t simply jump in and pursue research they decide is a good idea. Such an approach, Baljko says, leads to a disability dongle – well-intentioned solutions that were never requested by clients and don’t actually address the problem at hand. Instead, they ask clients which problems they would like to see solved.

Foad Hamidi
Foad Hamidi
(photo credit: Research Graphics UMBC)

Baljko’s lab focuses on value-based digital media and digital technology design, paying particular attention to inclusion and social belonging. In one of the lab’s accessibility projects, Baljko and her students formed a partnership with a community-based organization in Kenya. Foad Hamidi, who completed his PhD research under Baljko’s supervision and is now an assistant professor in information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was one of the researchers on the study.

“We wanted to see what factors would impact a do-it-yourself communication device for non-verbal children outside of Europe and North America,” Hamidi said.

The team used open-source technology-building kits and fashioned a simple device that could be used to create vocalizations for these non-verbal children. They brought the device to the community and had families work together to build similar units for their children.

“There were positive impacts,” Baljko said. “The children could use the devices at a special education school and the community came together to talk about the special education stigma, too.”

A major ongoing project, funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada and done in collaboration with Iris Epstein at the School of Nursing, Karen Swartz at Student Accessibility Services and external colleagues, is Accessibility in Educational Placement for Students with Disabilities. The researcher team is creating a toolkit that will enable people involved with student placements to find what is needed to support the inclusion of students with disabilities in placements.

“Students may face certain barriers in the classroom, but there are different challenges that come with going to a work site for placements, co-ops and work-integrated learning terms,” Baljko said. “Unfortunately, although people mean well, it often falls to the students themselves to raise awareness.”

Sarah Akhavan
Sarah Akhavan Kazemzadeh

Sarah Akhavan Kazemzadeh, a York computer science instructor, did her master’s thesis with Baljko in 2022 and has also been a collaborator on a number of PiET Lab’s research projects, including the design of assistive technology for a person with motor disabilities who is largely blind and deaf.

“It is basically a large screen that shows the letters of the alphabet,” said Akhavan Kazemzadeh. “The system scans through the letters and the person can press a button to stop it and choose a specific letter. It is a switch-activated writing system that this person has now been using for 10 years. She has gone to school with it and is now using it to write a book.”

Projects of this type have drawn interest from researchers elsewhere in the world. In 2023, for example, Baljko hosted an education event for her students and members of De Leidsche Fleisch, a study association for physics, astronomy, mathematics and computer science based at Leiden University, Netherlands, that aims to share knowledge and expertise with wider scientific communities.

No matter how many prototypes the PiET Lab creates, its motivation is sharing through open scholarship, not commercialization.

“The focus is on knowledge production, and the main outcome is papers and reports and open-source software,” said Hamidi. “However, if someone wants to take one of the ideas and turn it into a product, that would be wonderful. Unfortunately, with assistive technology, you often need government support.”

Akhavan noted, “Melanie’s significant impact shines through her development of a switch-activated writing system, utilized consistently for over a decade by an individual with motor disabilities and sensory impairments. This prolonged use underscores the essence of true accessibility. By involving individuals in the design process, Melanie’s approach ensures practical, enduring solutions. Unlike costly assistive technologies that often fall short of users’ needs, Melanie’s methodology advocates for sustainable, collaboratively driven innovation.”

Indeed, for Baljko, the process is as important as the research outcomes.

“I want to create conditions to bring people with lived experience of disability to projects as co-designers,” she said. “It’s a participatory method that erases barriers and lessens power imbalances.”

The final word about Baljko and the PiET Lab goes to Akhavan Kazemzadeh.

“When you think about this, it’s amazing. Melanie has realized that neglecting accessibility is a global issue and there’s a lot of work yet to be done.”

Faculty of Health continues to advance teaching innovation

Header banner for INNOVATUS

Welcome to the January 2024 edition of Innovatus, a special issue of YFile devoted to teaching and learning at York University. This month we showcase the Faculty of Health and highlight its unique and exemplary approaches to pedagogy.

Innovatus is produced by the Office of the Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning in partnership with Communications and Public Affairs division.

In this issue, the Faculty of Health invites York community members to read stories about how it is leading experiential teaching and learning initiatives that advance strategic initiatives and 21st-century learning in health-related programs.

The work in the Faculty of Health on our newly adopted strategic plan has emphasized a renewed commitment to unique health programming through experiential, accessible education. One of our strategic directions, “Creating Opportunity for Student Engagement and Impact,” will focus on advancing our supports for all students to succeed in their education, with meaningful community engagement through experiential and work-integrated learning (WIL).  

David Peters
Dean David Peters

The recent United Nations’ International Day of Education on Jan. 24 reminds us that inclusive and equitable quality education and fostering lifelong learning are critical to our communities. The Department of Psychology is developing teaching-learning strategies that showcase how equity and success can be planned for first-generation students using research-based modules. This three-year project is led by our inaugural Distinguished Fellow in Learning and Teaching Excellence, a role created to recognize scholarship, innovative pedagogy and expertise in education. In addition, a funded project focusing on WIL for under-represented students aimed to reduce barriers through an initiative that provided Black students with work experiences in applying key skills. 

In the Faculty’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, undergraduate students have community service-learning opportunities for teaching adapted physical activity to high-school students. In the Black Creek and Jane-Finch communities, our undergraduates directly support students who are living with disabilities to compete in their annual Aspire Games, a spring track event held at York University. Our own students help others while applying discipline-specific, evidence-informed knowledge. 

The School of Nursing is taking another approach for strengthening the student experience and is leveraging technology for e-mentoring undergraduate nursing students. Mentoring supports are aimed at helping them face the challenges of transitioning to intense workplace settings and navigate real-world health-care settings. Graduate nursing students participate in providing psychosocial support, career advice and networking. 

Increasing students’ connections to international communities is occurring through course offerings across the Faculty’s five units, such as in the School of Global Health and in the School of Health Policy & Management. Facilitated by our international relations manager, faculty members can develop their capacity for teaching internationally through unique “bootcamp” experiences. Undergraduate and graduate students from across the Faculty of Health gain valuable experience in their area of interest in countries such as Costa Rica, Germany, Ghana and soon Cuba. 

The challenges that our students and graduates face in health care and health-related work settings inspire us to lead through innovative approaches in teaching and learning. We hope you enjoy finding out more about the Faculty of Health and our vision to be leaders and partners for a healthy and just world. 


David Peters 
Dean, Faculty of Health 

Faculty, course directors and staff are invited to share their experiences in teaching, learning, internationalization and the student experience through the Innovatus story form, which is available here.

In this issue:

Two Faculty of Health professors champion equity in education 
Psychology professors Julie Conder and Monique Herbert are advancing initiatives that ensure first-generation and under-represented students are gaining the learning and skills they need to succeed.

Hands-on experience brings kinesiology theory to life
Find out how Assistant Professor Stephanie Bowerman helped students learn how to work with disabled clients by turning theory into practice.

E-mentoring a success for nursing students
A three-month pilot project connected nursing students and practitioners to receive e-mentoring that would better prepare them to enter the workforce.

New Faculty of Health website highlights global learning
“Make our world a smaller place by being in it,” proclaims the new global learning page on the Faculty of Health’s website, which looks to further the Faculty’s series commitment to advancing global engagement, one of the University Academic Plan’s six priorities for action.