Oct. 20, 2021

Kyla Flanagan’s teaching excellence honoured with McCaig-Killam Teaching Award

Her innovative teaching helps forge a path for students to get excited about scientific discovery
Kyla Flanagan
Kyla Flanagan

Dr. Kyla Flanagan, PhD, was awarded the prestigious McCaig-Killam Teaching Award at last week’s Killam Awards ceremony. She’s been an instructor in biological sciences in the Faculty of Science for 13 years — but Flanagan’s UCalgary DNA runs deeper than that. Both her undergraduate and doctoral degrees were earned here, too.

“I was just blown away that I was selected,” Flanagan says about receiving the honour. “It’s an incredible culmination of the work I’ve done over the last 10 years or so. I’ve focused much of my teaching practice on bringing undergraduate research experiences into the classroom. A lot of times, the student experience is separate from the research that takes place on campus. It’s exciting to work towards a deeper integration of the two.”

Transformative impact

Flanagan’s teaching excellence earned her high praise. Nominating her for the award, the interim dean of the Faculty of Science, Bernhard Meyer, PhD, said she has an “incredible transformative impact on the academic careers of students and faculty members through her innovative educational practices. She weaves pedagogical innovation, research skills, and collaborative learning approaches throughout and beyond her classrooms, forging a path for students to get excited about scientific discovery.”

Helping students immerse themselves in the discipline is one of the aspects of her teaching that’s especially important to Flanagan. “It’s a bit of a shift for students to move from regurgitating something on a test to being part of creating knowledge,” she says.

When students come into the university, they often think of themselves as studying biology. But I like to help them see themselves as biologists.

Over the last several years, Flanagan has redesigned three courses to be Course-based Research Experience (CUREs). “CUREs allow all students enrolled in the course access to a research experience, thereby eliminating many barriers to research opportunities experienced by students and ensuring access to high-quality research experiences.” she says. “They also allow research skills like collaboration, scientific writing, data management, data analysis, to be intentionally scaffolded within a program, providing a way to ensure students are developing important skills.”

How to learn vs. what to learn

Flanagan — who is also an academic lead in the College of Discovery, Creativity, and Innovation at the Taylor Institute for Learning — believes teaching people how to learn is as important as what they learn. “It’s important for students to think about their own thinking as they’re working through course material,” she says. “Building in opportunities for reflection helps students think about how they learned. When [those opportunities] are built into a course, they should be able to tell you what they learned, and what skills they have developed.”

One strategy she uses to achieve this is assignment wrappers — a reflective practice that takes a student back through an assignment to perform an error analysis — that helps students learn from their mistakes.

Awards and publications

Nor is the McCaig-Killam Award the first time Flanagan’s teaching excellence has been recognized this year. In 2021, she received a Faculty of Science Educational Leadership Award. She’s also been actively engaged in four different research projects, each with collaborative teams of colleagues or students. Two of them were recently published in leading scholarship of teaching and learning journals, and Flanagan has published three additional, peer-reviewed case studies for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

For the past two years, she’s also been the lead for the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE). It provides student-led experiential research opportunities for undergraduate students, and over the past two years has supported almost 300 students and more than 250 supervisors. Flanagan has piloted eight new student workshops to help students develop and articulate the research skills they gained through PURE. She also implemented a supervisor orientation to help them explore best practices for undergraduate research mentorship. This year, it’s added a workshop to help students develop project and data management skills essential to the research process.

Importance of mentors

As part of her work at the Taylor Institute, Flanagan helped create a new and sought-after course called Research on Global Challenges — with an inquiry-based, rather than lecture-based, approach. The unique course helps students develop skills in research, teamwork, and problem-solving by conducting a deep, authentic research project under the guidance of experienced faculty members.

Flanagan is quick to highlight the importance of mentors in achieving her teaching success, in particular the influence of her colleague, Dr. Heather Addy, PhD, a professor of biological sciences.

“I’ve been surrounded by amazing mentors. Having colleagues that I can rely on has been so important,” says Flanagan. “Now I’m at a point in my career where I’m shifting into being a mentor for others, I’m trying to pass the lessons I learned from Heather and others along.”