TRU microbiology professor wins award

A fermentation fundraiser dinner, HIV case study and microbial art are among the unique teaching exercises used by a Thompson Rivers University microbiologist being recognized with a prestigious award.

Dr. Naowarat (Ann) Cheeptham is one of four professors from Canadian universities receiving the 2020 D2L Innovation Award in teaching and learning.

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Cheeptham joins Nipissing University’s Denyse Lafrance Horning, Judy Larsen from the University of the Fraser Valley and Melody Neumann from the University of Toronto in receiving the award, delivered by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) in conjunction with Desire2Learn (D2L).

The award is given to those who use innovative ways to teach at the undergraduate level — something Cheeptham has a good track record of in her 18-year teaching career at TRU.

In her fermentation class, rather than having a written final exam, Cheeptham has her students develop a menu of microbially fermented foods and host an actual fundraiser dinner serving those products titled “Come Dine with Microbes.” The money raised is donated to a cause of students’ choice.

“I just feel that, you know, I don’t want to read another upper level report or writing assignment — it’s so boring for us as well to mark them. I want to do something fun with students, something interesting so I just on a whim came up with this,” Cheeptham said.

Cheeptham said her students loved the project and spent more time engaged with the subject matter than they would have in writing a final report or exam.

She has collaboratively designed a case study exercise titled Murder by HIV based on an actual court-case used in her molecular evolution course, and also hired students to make artwork exhibits out of scanning electron micrographs of bacteria from her cave research.

In teaching the concepts of microbiology, Cheeptham said she feels she has to be an entertainer.

Just telling her students to open their textbooks won’t hold their curiosity, so she tries to think outside the box.

“Content-based kind of learning, I think, is a little bit old because [students] these days can just get information at the tips of their fingers. I want to teach them to be able to critically think about information,” Cheeptham said.

Cheeptham said the award won’t stop her from continuing to find new ways to engage her students, noting a likely second wave of COVID-19 in the fall will pose a new challenge to engage students remotely.

The 2020 award recipients each receive a two-year membership for STLHE and up to $2,200 towards registration and travel costs to attend the 2021 STLHE Annual Conference in Ottawa next June.

“To be awarded, I feel very honoured and humbled,” Cheeptham said.

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