Don’t look up: how to safely view upcoming solar eclipse

Solar eclipse

Looking directly at the sun is never safe, says Elaina Hyde, an assistant professor in York University’s Faculty of Science and director of York’s Allan I. Carswell Observatory. But that is especially true during a solar eclipse, like the one expected in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico on April 8.

A total solar eclipse is a rare celestial event that occurs as the moon aligns perfectly between Earth and the sun, completely blocking the sun’s face and casting its shadow onto Earth, resulting in brief moments of temporary darkness. In Ontario, the eclipse’s path of totality – the locations where the moon’s shadow covers the sun in its entirety – includes Niagara Falls, Hamilton and St. Catharines.

Although Toronto will only experience a partial eclipse, with the moon covering 99.6 per cent of the sun, the sun’s brightness will still be strong enough to cause eye damage – and potential blindness – to anyone who looks directly at it. This can occur even if direct exposure only lasts a few seconds.

“People, especially young children, may be tempted to look up during the eclipse, but it’s not safe to do so without proper protection,” says Hyde. “Sunglasses are definitely not protective and shouldn’t be used when viewing the eclipse, but there are safe ways to do it.”

Those safe ways of viewing the eclipse – either total or partial – include using ​solar viewing glasses that have been certified by the International Organization for Standardization (labelled ​​ISO 12312-2 certified), a pinhole camera (a type of projector), or solar filters specifically designed to be used with telescopes or binoculars. For more safety tips, see the Observatory’s Eclipse Safety flyer.

In the days leading up to the big event, York’s Observatory will be hosting a pre-eclipse solar viewing on the first clear day between April 2 and 6. Join York astronomers as they take solar-appropriate telescopes outside to view the sun, demonstrate pinhole cameras and pass out free solar viewing glasses. Experts will answer frequently-asked questions about the eclipse and discuss how to enjoy the partial eclipse from Toronto. Good solar views require clear weather, which makes this event especially challenging to plan. Those interested in participating should check the Observatory’s Solar Eclipse 2024 web page daily at 10 a.m. between April 2 and 6 to find out if the event is on or off that day. For more information about the event, and to register for free tickets and daily updates, visit the York University Events Calendar listing.

On April 8, eclipse timing will vary depending on location. At York University, the partial eclipse will begin at 2:04 p.m. and end at 4:31 p.m., reaching its maximum expression at 3:19 p.m., which will be the best time to view it. Wherever you are during those times, Hyde stresses the importance that you do not – under any circumstances – look directly at the sun without the proper eye protection listed above.

Since York’s campuses are not located on the path of totality, the University won’t be hosting any public viewing events that day; however, York staff, faculty and students at the Keele Campus are invited to safely observe the partial eclipse atop the Arboretum Lane Parking Garage, near the Allan I. Carswell Observatory atrium.

Solar viewing glasses will be available, while supplies last, at multiple distribution sites on campus – during the First Clear Day pre-eclipse event, in the Department of Physics & Astronomy office on the first floor of the Petrie Science & Engineering Building; and on April 8, at the observing station on the fifth floor of the Arboretum Lane Parking Garage and at a smaller viewing area near York University Station in Harry W. Arthurs Common.

To learn more about the upcoming solar eclipse, visit the Allan I. Carswell Observatory’s Solar Eclipse 2024 web page for more information and resources, including blog updates from professors Robin Metcalfe and Bruce Waters, sharing their solar eclipse experiences.

Research explores use of artificial shrubs for animal protection

Lizard beside a shrub in the desert

Mario Zuliani, a York University researcher and teaching assistant in the Faculty of Science, is making inroads in the field of ecology with his novel study on the association between imitation plants and animal species.  

Expected to complete his PhD at York in August, Zuliani has already made significant contributions to ecological science, including a recently published paper in Restoration Ecology titled “The Relative Effects of Artificial Shrubs on Animal Community Assembly.” 

Zuliani’s environmental research took root during his master’s program in biology at York, where from 2018 to 2020 he focused on ecological conservation and restoration, particularly through studying the relationship between shrubs and animal species. Building on this earlier work, Zuliani’s latest study digs deeper into the facilitative interactions between shrub and animal species, exploring how structures that mimic shrubs might be utilized by animal species in the wild.  

Explaining the motivation behind his research, Zuliani highlights the importance of shrub species in arid ecosystems such as those found in Southern California. These shrubs play a crucial role in providing shelter, food and protection for a diverse range of animal species, mitigating the harsh conditions of the desert environment.  

Fake shrubs serve much of the same purpose, Zuliani and his team have found, providing compelling evidence that artificial shrub structures can replicate the benefits of natural shrubs, attracting similar animal communities and providing essential resources for survival. 

“From our study, we found that artificial shrubs can produce the same benefits that natural shrubs produce. They reduce the temperature under their canopy and even have the same animal species associating around them,” Zuliani says. “We also found that animals prefer being closer to either artificial shrubs or natural shrubs, rather than in areas where there are no shrubs. This is important because it shows that these artificial structures will be used as a resource by animals.” 

The implications of Zuliani’s research are far-reaching, offering valuable insights for conservation and restoration efforts in disturbed ecosystems.  

“One of the biggest actions I am hoping to come about from these findings is the use of artificial shrubs as a short-term solution to promote animal communities in areas where natural shrubs have been disturbed, or in areas where there are endangered animal species,” he says. “Finding that these dry-land animal species utilize these artificial shrubs suggests that they can be used, at least for a short time, while natural shrubs are able to grow in size and provide the same benefits.” 

By demonstrating the effectiveness of artificial shrubs as a temporary solution to promote animal communities, Zuliani also hopes to pave the way for sustainable initiatives that support endangered species and mitigate the impacts of habitat loss and climate change.  

“Utilizing artificial shrubs – and by extension artificial structures – could have positive impacts on sustainability initiatives, as they can all be used temporarily while disrupted ecosystems recover,” Zuliani says. “As well, using these types of structures, even for just a short period of time, would relieve stress that animals experience when they have lost habitats or when their environment has become increasingly harsh from global climate extremes.” 

York study explores movement in space

astronaut in space

Researchers at York University, led by principle investigator Professor Laurence Harris, in collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, published a study in Nature Microgravity investigating whether the distance humans perceive themselves to move changes in the microgravity of space.

On the International Space Station (ISS), Earth’s gravity is cancelled by the orbiting of the station. In the resulting microgravity, the way people move is more like flying, which can – potentially – make people feel like they are covering distances more quickly. What Harris and his collaborators wondered was, “Can humans adapt to this type of self-motion? Would their internal sense of distance travelled be the same or change?”

Their study to investigate further started as a proposal in 2014 and has since been tested on 12 astronauts who have been aboard the ISS. Harris, a professor in the Faculty of Health and Faculty of Science, and his team compared the performance of astronauts before, during, and after their year-long missions to the ISS and – to their surprise – found that the astronauts’ sense of how far they had travelled remained largely intact.

Despite existing research showing that perception of gravity influences our perception of distance, the York study’s findings suggest that humans are able to compensate adequately for the lack of an Earth-normal environment using vision. This means humans are able to manually operate machinery and accurately navigate around the spacecraft – without misjudging distance. That’s positive news for space flight and astronaut safety, but these findings may also have applications here on Earth. “Our discovery of the flexible response to changes in gravity may be useful to help understand a range of people’s balance disorders here on Earth,” says Harris.

Among the 12 astronauts tested for the study, six were men and six were women, which the research team notes is unusual. Equal numbers of men and women are not always represented in space studies, but the researchers felt it important to have for this study, to not only have equal representation but to identify whether there were any differences between genders (they found no gender-related effects).

The current study – titled “The Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Microgravity and Body Orientation Relative to Gravity on Perceived Traveled Distance” – represents the first of three that will be published arising from the study investigating the effects of microgravity exposure on different perceptual skills, including the estimation of body tilt, travelled distance and object size.

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

Header banner for INNOVATUS

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.” 

Faculty of Science innovates with assist from AIF

Concept of idea and innovation with paper ball

By Elaine Smith

Making chemistry courses and labs more engaging and accessing science lab spaces – regardless of physical ability – are becoming easier to accomplish, thanks to Faculty of Science initiatives sponsored by Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) grants.

In the Department of Chemistry, Tihana Mirkovic, an assistant professor, and Hovig Kouyoumdjian, an associate professor who is also the associate dean of curriculum and pedagogy, are developing modules using e-learning tool Adobe Captivate to improve students’ learning experiences. Meanwhile, biology professors Tamara Kelly and Paula Wilson and their colleagues – project manager Jessi Nelson, accessibility expert Ainsley Latour and educational development specialist Ashley Nahornick – are identifying and supporting improvements that make labs more accessible.

Kouyoumdjian first identified the potential of Adobe Captivate as a tool for the generation of an interactive learning environment in chemistry classes. Together with Mirkovic, the pair recognized that the laboratory experience through pre-laboratory activities in undergraduate classes could be substantially improved by leveraging the multimedia learning process that could be incorporated into modules generated in Adobe Captivate.

“Our goal is to allow students to integrate their conceptual and procedural understanding of their labs through active learning opportunities. We hope that the newly developed modules, featuring slides, videos, hotspots, 360-degree navigation, software simulations and knowledge check assessments, will provide a learning environment that motivates our students and maximizes their learning potential,” Mirkovic said.

“We aim for students to stay engaged, even when the material is presented virtually,” said Kouyoumdjian. “Now, we possess an e-learning tool with an interactive component that complements the static elements of the course. It is applicable for both blended and online courses.”

The pair also collaborated with an instructional designer to craft customizable templates to help with the process of repurposing and reusing the modules across various courses.”

Tihana Mirkovic
Tihana Mirkovic

The professors have has initiated a pilot in the courses CHEM 2020 (Introductory Organic Chemistry I) and CHEM 3001 (Experimental Chemistry II) this term. “We hope to gather valuable information from the initial student experience and feedback collected from Adobe Captivate activities and linked self-reflection surveys,” Mirkovic said. During the summer, they will reflect on the pilot’s successes and explore the reusability of the created templates.

They are optimistic that the new software will contribute to student engagement, leading to increased student motivation and greater retention.

Meanwhile, the accessibility team is moving forward with its own initiative to improve – in a different way – the accessibility of biology, chemistry and physics labs for students in the Faculty.

Paula Wilson
Paula Wilson

“Paula and I have directed labs, and something we come up against regularly is accommodation,” said Kelly, the project lead and the Pedagogical Innovation Chair, Science Education. “Student Accessibility Services typically addresses lectures, but has limited expertise to support providing clear accommodations for labs.”

Added Wilson: “Students with accessibility issues have the burden of negotiating with their professors for every lab, and it’s exhausting. Also, even if professors are eager to assist, they aren’t experts in accommodation.

“In addition, by the time faculty members get a letter about accommodating a student, it may be the second or third week of the term, which leaves no time for finding and arranging creative solutions.”

Ainsley Latour
Ainsley Latour

The group plans to survey Faculty of Science students and faculty to learn more about needs and accommodations that work. Latour and Nelson developed a checklist of barriers to accessibility in labs and then, with Nahornick, toured first-year science laboratories with the technicians who run the labs. They looked for barriers and what was missing to make accommodation easier.

“There were a lot of things that were quick fixes, so Ashley emailed the lab managers to suggest changes to make before the start of the term,” said Kelly. “These included the readability of signage, repairs to broken automatic doors, among other things.”

Ashley Nahornick
Ashley Nahornick

The team also brought in Pamela Millett, an audiologist from the Faculty of Education, to determine what the sound issues might be for those with hearing concerns.

“There is a lot of ambient sound in labs, from fans and other equipment, that make it hard for students to hear instructions,” said Nahornick. “Repairing or using their microphones is an easy fix.”

The next step will be to create professional development support for instructors, technicians and teaching assistants, so they understand how to best support accessibility in labs.

Wilson said they would also like to prepare a series of recommendations for the Faculty. “Some issues may require infrastructure changes that will require additional funding. We want to take away the pressure on instructors to handle this on their own by making changes where we can and sharing best practices,” she explained. “Our aim is to make it easier for all students to have valuable lab experiences that meet course outcomes.”

Kelly added, “If we have a clear understanding in advance about what is needed, that’s a big step. Some things must be personalized, but there are some general things we can implement for our students. Students with disabilities are often driven away from science in high school because of barriers, and we don’t want to be part of that cycle. We want to enable people.

“For a lot of students, their first experience in a lab turns them onto science. We’ll lose talent if they don’t feel as if they can function in this setting.”

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.” 

York researchers appointed new, renewed Canada Research Chairs

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The Government of Canada has issued a new Canada Research Chair (CRC) appointment to York University Professor Godfred Boateng in global health and humanitarianism, as well as renewed the Chairs of three other faculty members – Ethel Tungohan (Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies), Isaac Smith (Lassonde School of Engineering) and Steven Connor (Faculty of Science).

The CRC program facilitates world-class research at Canadian universities, boosting their global competitiveness, while also providing training opportunities for the next generation of highly skilled personnel through research, teaching and learning.

“From global health to migration policy to planetary science to neurophysiology, York University faculty are at the forefront of research excellence in their respective fields,” said Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation. “I extend my sincere congratulations to our four new and renewed Canada Research Chairs whose impactful work benefits the lives of both Canadians and people around the world.”

Learn more about the new and renewed chairholders at York:

Godfred Boateng
Godfred Boateng

Godfred Boateng, Canada Research Chair in Global Health and Humanitarianism
Boateng is an assistant professor in the School of Global Health, director of the Global & Environmental Health Lab and a faculty fellow at the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research. He is also the principal investigator on a new project called “Retooling Black Anxiety” in the Greater Toronto Area.

As a CRC, Boateng will address global health priorities by focusing on anticipatory, instead of reactionary, approaches. Notably, he will look to further understand the synergistic epidemics of food, water, energy, and housing insecurity and their compounding effects, as well as the impact of environmental degradation and changes in climatic conditions on the health of older adults in sub-Saharan Africa and Canada.

Ethel Tungohan
Ethel Tungohan

Ethel Tungohan, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism
With her CRC renewal, Tungohan, an associate professor in the Department of Politics in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, will build on her work assessing the interconnections between policies, everyday lived experiences and social movement organizing.

She will continue to look at the impact on migrant workers, Canadian discourse, and policies on immigration, labour, and occupational health and safety in the pre-pandemic, pandemic and post-pandemic era.

Isaac Smith
Isaac Smith

Isaac Smith, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Planetary Science
Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering in the Lassonde School of Engineering, will use his CRC renewal to investigate aspects of ice and climate on Mars and other parts of the solar system, including Pluto and Triton, Neptune’s moon.

The research is unique to York University and aims to advance knowledge of Mars’ climate and ice-related processes, in addition to performing glaciological modelling on icy worlds in the outer solar system.

Steven Connor
Steven Connor

Steven Connor, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in the Synaptic Basis of Neurodevelopmental Disorders
Connor, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the Faculty of Science, will use his CRC renewal to focus on investigating how specific brain proteins facilitate the transmission of information between brain cells. The research aims to further understand how those proteins influence neural circuit function and activity, and how they can result in autism-like behaviour when compromised. Connor and his research team will also explore the restorative effects of reversing molecular changes linked to the loss of certain brain cells.  

Astronomer in Residence program offers hands-on experience to stargazers

Starry sky reflecting on lake at Lost Lake, USA

Applications are now open for York University’s 2024 Astronomer in Residence (AIR) program, an initiative led by the Allan I. Carswell Observatory in partnership with Killarney Provincial Park allowing qualified individuals to enjoy astronomy under the park’s dark skies and lead programming using its observatory. This year’s program runs from May 13 to Oct. 20.

Launched in 2022, the program calls on qualified astronomers – both professional and amateur – to apply to be an astronomer in residence at Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park for a period of one to three weeks this summer and fall. The selected individuals will be expected to run in-person tours two to five times a week and create observatory shows, YouTube livestreams and recorded video sessions, as well as author a blog. Participants are offered free parking and lodging, as well as a $400-per-week stipend for their residency.

The full summer schedule can be found on the program’s website.

Those interested in applying can do so via the application form. For more information about qualifications, visit the Candidate Expectations page.

Throughout the duration of the program, passionate stargazers can follow along through the Astronomer in Residence Blog and livestreams on the Allan I. Carswell Observatory YouTube page, or by attending live viewings and programming at Killarney Provincial Park.