We sat down with Ashley Welsh, a 3rd year PhD candidate specializing in Undergraduate Science Education to discuss her upcoming TedxTerry talk on “Overcoming Our Hurdles to Learning”. With an undergraduate background in chemical physics, we were curious – how did she get into teaching?! Here is our brief interview with her.
Interview conducted by Marion Benkaiouche and Ignatius But
Q. You completed your undergraduate degree in a Bachelors of Sci., how did you make the switch to pursue a Ph.D in teaching?
A. I completed a degree in chemical physics and during my time in undergrad I did a lot of tutoring. I was a peer helper for most of my bachelors and also became interested in the education portion of undergraduate sciences, like how people learn and teach physics. After I graduated I had a professor send me to a science education conference, where I met Carl Weiman who is here at UBC looking at ways to enhance undergraduate education. So I decided to come here to research how people learn and how to improve undergraduate education.
Q. How did you become so passionate about teaching?
A. Since I was in Gr. 10 or 11, I have been tutoring math and physics. Part of it was with social services where I would tutor for families who may not have been able to afford it. The school board paid me to go into these low-income households. When I was in university I was a part of a peer tutoring group and now, I volunteer with Big Sisters/Little Sisters as a study buddy and this is where my passion is. I meet with someone once a week and work on their homework together. I think what I like most is not only what I can teach someone and help them learn but also what they teach me through their stories and experiences and how I can take that and implement it into my teaching as well.
What makes me passionate is the AHA! moment from students. When they say I can’t do science, I can’t do math, it’s not that they can’t – it’s maybe that they haven’t been taught or facilitated in the right way. For me, it’s when they finally realize they can do something, and that there are people and resources that can help them. It’s getting students to reach this aha moment when they realize they can do something.
Q. Your talk deals with the struggles of learning and going over the difficult hurdles. Have you experienced these hurdles in your own life?
A. When I reflect back on my schooling, I used to do everything individually and put the focus on myself. But when I reached university, and in physics, there was this emphasis on working in groups and learning together because you would not have been able to do the problems if you weren’t working together with your peers. So for me the hurdle was realizing the importance and value of interacting with other people and being ok with getting something wrong.
Q. For a lot of people university is pretty competitive. Do you think perceived competition makes people reluctant to participate in social and collaborative learning?
A. I really think that depends on the person. When playing and coaching sports, I have noticed that for some people, the pressure of winning is what motivates them best but for other people it can deter them as well. I know, even in my own experience, grades dictated a lot of what I did and emotionally even if you got a bad grade you can feel your stomach drop. And with admissions into university and professional schools there is such a huge emphasis on grades. But its key to understand that if we don’t do well at something then we need to consider how can we move forward or how we can learn from there. Grades are still embedded in a lot of our schooling though.
Q. Is there anything else you want us to know about you?
A. Well I have this party trick where I can cluck like a chicken and I also play Ultimate Frisbee – I’ve been playing for 12-13 years. Um… would you like me to cluck like a chicken for you? (Clucks – we are all convinced she is a chicken)
Q. How did you learn how to do that?!
A. Well I grew up on a family farm in Bowmanville, Ontario but we didn’t have any chickens so I don’t really know where I got the chicken clucking from…
Be sure to check out Ashley’s talk at the TEDx Terry Talks (and perhaps some incredible clucking!) on November 2 at the Life Sciences Center. For ticket information, please visit: http://www.terry.ubc.ca/tedxterrytalks/tedxterrytalks2013/