Celebrating excellence in Teaching and Learning

Two rows of four headshots in a grid

The 2023 President’s Awards for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning have been awarded to (top row from left to right) Karen Balcom, Alpha Abebe, Peter Cockett, Rosa da Silva, (bottom row left to right) Zhen Gao, Elizabeth Hassan, Sharonna Greenberg and Caitlin Mullarkey.

Eight faculty members from across the university are the recipients of the 2023 President’s Awards for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning, the highest distinction for teaching excellence a faculty member can receive at the university.

“McMaster has long been recognized as a global leader in teaching and learning,” says McMaster President, David Farrar.

“I congratulate these outstanding educators and thank them for their dedication to supporting the success of our students and their commitment to driving teaching and learning innovation across the university and beyond.”

This year marks the highest number of President’s Award recipients for teaching excellence ever to be honoured in a single year — a testament to the depth of the teaching talent that exists across the university, and which is continuing to grow.

Award recipients are nominated by peers, campus leaders or partners within the campus community, and nominations are evaluated by a selection committee appointed by the president. The achievements of the award winners will be showcased during Convocation celebrations.

Meet this year’s recipients through excerpts from their citations:

Alpha Abebe

Assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies & Media Arts

A headshot of Alpha AbebeAlpha Abebe is a student-centered practitioner with an impeccable record of leadership and innovation in pedagogy and curriculum design, whose contributions extend well beyond her departmental and Faculty communities.

Nominated for an MSU teaching award in 2022, Abebe’s approach has been described by her students as “transformative,” with one student noting that her “practices encourage students to question social norms and ways of thinking that can be damaging to equity-seeking groups. Alpha’s approach to teaching empowers students to identify areas for personal growth — and she holds space in the classroom for students to learn as whole people.”

Karen Balcom

Associate professor of history/gender & social justice, and the academic co-director for teaching and learning in McMaster’s Office of Community Engagement

A headshot of Karen Balcom

Karen Balcom understands the importance of seeing students as individuals and supporting each student’s personal growth alongside their academic development. Her numerous examples of teaching innovation include developing History’s first archives-immersive experiential course, co-taught with colleagues from the university archives. She is a foundational member of the teaching team for the Integrated Business and Humanities program.

“Dr. Balcom is a pedagogical innovator, a tireless advocate for equity in the classroom and in our larger community, and a generous instructor, supervisor, and colleague. She has had an immeasurable impact on our university, and I know for certain she has transformed many young people’s lives.”

Peter Cockett

Associate professor in the School of the Arts

A headshot of Peter CockettPeter Cockett has a passionate commitment to anti-oppressive, decolonial and social justice pedagogies, and a belief in the power of the arts to engage with and enact social change. His contributions include highly innovative arts-based platforms that increase and enhance students’ experiential education. He guides projects from inception through to final production, facilitating the students’ development of their scripts, their sound, lighting, costume and set designs, and the direction of their actors.

He mentors students by involving them in all aspects of performance. As one student notes, “Peter always fostered inspiration and collaboration while respecting the needs of his students. He would always look to hear our input on the complexities of creating productions and art, while encouraging us to step outside of our comfort zones, try new things and grow as artists.”

Rosa da Silva

Associate professor and associate chair of undergraduate studies in the Department of Biology

A headshot of Rosa da SilvaRosa da Silva aims to create an active learning environment in her courses that encourages social involvement, inquiry-based learning and independent study. Da Silva is a recipient of the prestigious 2021 Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Teaching Award (OCUFA). She is a two-time winner of the MSU Innovation Award and, in 2020, was part of a team that received the President’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Teaching and Learning.

Her colleagues describe her passion, resourcefulness, innovation, mentorship and collaborative approach to teaching and learning as “infectious and inspiring.” It’s a sentiment echoed by her local and international colleagues who write that da Silva is truly “transforming science education and revolutionizing student learning.”

Zhen Gao

Assistant professor in the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology

A headshot of Zhen GaoZhen Gao engages learners through experiential learning, community collaboration and engineering practice in an equitable, diverse and inclusive environment.

Through his teaching, Gao aims to promote new ideas. He uses relevant examples from industry and incorporates the latest technology into labs and course work. As his colleagues note, “Dr. Gao has always been a practitioner of combining engineering knowledge that supports conceptual theory, and practical skills that allow theory to touch the ground.”

Gao has demonstrated exemplary leadership in teaching and learning innovation. He has designed nine new courses, re-designed six existing courses and created over 30 lab experiments and manuals. He is also the founding program lead of the Master of Engineering in Systems & Technology program — one of the most popular and competitive master’s programs of its kind in the world.

Sharonna Greenberg

Assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology

A headshot of Sharonna Greenberg Sharonna Greenberg creates the conditions in which both understanding and inspiration are possible. This helps her cultivate a curiosity-driven culture of questioning. Her innovations and course designs are based on the idea that continuous feedback is needed to improve student understanding of subject matter and teacher understanding of students.

Greenberg is the inventor of the Test Archive & Analysis System (TAAS), which allows instructors to more accurately predict class averages on questions and, as a result, to better align teaching with assessments. She should be applauded for “the type of engaging student experience that I know myself and many of our colleagues strive to achieve,” writes a colleague. “She is at ease, and clearly enjoys, her rapport with her students.”

Elizabeth Hassan

Assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Experiential Learning Office

A headshot of Elizabeth Hassan Elizabeth Hassan’s teaching philosophy is built on critical thinking and analysis, building engineering judgment through process and de-risking failure — an approach that has led to positive learning outcomes while reducing student stress levels and prioritizing mental health. Data from her classes is currently being used to shape Faculty of Engineering level accessible course design policies and she has been asked to advise on experiential teaching approaches at two peer institutions nationally.

Hassan’s approach has connected with students. As one student notes, “Being able to participate in a course where we actually get the opportunity to apply what we have learned in a challenging but realistic way taught me a lot about teamwork, project planning, leadership, and most importantly it taught me how to go from the simple idea generation stage to being able to see your ideas come to life.”

Caitlin Mullarkey

Associate professor and associate chair for undergraduate education in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences

A headshot of Caitlin Mullarkey Through active, student-centred learning, encouraging cooperation between students and faculty, and emphasizing critical thinking, Mullarkey empowers and immerses students in learning activities that allow them to apply and adapt their learning to new scenarios.

She collaborated in the development and launch of “DNA Decoded,” a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that has enrolled over 34,000 learners globally. To address racial, ethnic, and gender disparities among students in STEM programs, Mullarkey created the Summer Scholar’s Program, a 12-week experiential learning program focused on research skills development, mentorship and career growth for equity-deserving undergraduate STEM students.

“Dr. Mullarkey is an educator of the highest calibre who has elevated McMaster’s reputation beyond our institutional walls,” writes a colleague. “Her educational leadership and teaching activities have enhanced all five of McMaster’s institutional priorities, and her accomplishments are highly worthy of this [award].”

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