University of Calgary

Upstanding Faculty

Submitted by alumni on Sat, 05/31/2014 - 16:33.

Upstanding Faculty

Drop into Isabelle Barrette-Ng’s class and discover what rap and a chocolate bunny have to do with biochemistry.
By Jennifer Allford

Teaching the Talk
Isabelle Barrette-Ng is one of 17 winners of the inaugural University of Calgary Teaching Awards

Students descend into the rows of seats in the lecture hall, waving at friends and settling into their seats, hauling out laptops, tablets and even old fashioned note books.

At the bottom of the room, Isabelle Barrette-Ng is fiddling with her laptop, getting her notes ready to appear on two giant screens behind her. At 11 a.m., she taps the microphone she’s clipped onto her sweater, smiles up into the din of more than 300 students and says: “OK, welcome back. Let’s get started.”

Over the next 50 minutes, the biological sciences instructor in the Faculty of Science links together a rap video, a chocolate bunny and more than a few complex formulas of carbohydrates.

But she kicks off BCEM 393: Introductory Biochemistry by asking students a few questions, including what they ate for breakfast.

They text in their answers and watch as blue bars move across the screens recording their responses. “The challenge teaching big classes is keeping them interested and engaged, so I do a lot of work to get everyday examples,” explains Barette-Ng.

“Asking about breakfast and how many calories they had from sugar makes it more real to them because carbohydrates can sometime be dry.”

Recognizing Outstanding Learning Experiences

Keeping the dry at bay is why Barrette-Ng is among the 17 faculty members to be recognized with an inaugural University of Calgary Teaching Award. The provost, Dru Marshall, announced the awards last fall to recognize “outstanding contributions to creating deep and lasting learning experiences that truly make a difference in students’ lives.”

Barrette-Ng’s colleague Dave Hansen, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, wrote the nomination letter calling her “a gifted and inspired educator.”

Take, for example, the rap video. Two young men on YouTube mimic 50 Cent’s Hate it or Love it: Go Ahead study me/ I make ATP/ And I’m be on your test so you should get to know me/. “That was beautiful,” one student says as the video ends.

“Biochemistry traditionally has been seen as a course that’s memory intensive, you come in here, listen to me talk, and go home and memorize everything,” says Barrette-Ng. “I’ve been trying to change that.”

The Chocolate Bunny

In the midst of formulas for oxidoreductases and ligases, the chocolate bunny appears on the screen to underscore Barrette-Ng’s point that the brain burns a lot of glucose, and why it is that: “You get ultimate sugar cravings when you study.”

This little bit of biochemistry may explain why dozens of students are enjoying their lunch in class.

Others are snacking on Facebook and at least one woman is shopping for shoes when she’s not taking notes. “I think they’re really good at multitasking,” says Barrette-Ng, who is working with colleagues at the American Society for Microbiology to improve biology education. “I am happy when I can see that over 80 or 85 per cent are actually engaged.”

Natural science student Ian Baker, who checked Facebook a few times during BCEM 393, likes how Barrette-Ng uses technology during class and is always accessible afterward.

“She engages with the students a lot and is really available by e-mail or office hours,” he says as he packs up after class, one of his favourites. “It’s definitely in the top 10 per cent… and biochemistry is not something I am really interested in.”