THE 2017 SHIMADZU EDUCATION AWARD: HEATHER VERKADE
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Melbourne
Heather Verkade’s interest in science began at the University of Melbourne, with a Bachelor of Science and honours in genetics. She carried out a PhD at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute (back in East Melbourne) in yeast cell cycle genetics, but she then changed direction to study zebrafish developmental genetics at UCSF in San Francisco and then at the Ludwig Institute. She has always loved to study complex systems, and to consider both the detail of a reductionist approach at the same time as the effect on the whole organism. Heather gained a teaching and research academic position at Monash University in the School of Biological Sciences, but realised that she was most fascinated with university education and the complex processes by which students learn. In 2014, she was fortunate to gain a Teaching Specialist position as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Heather believes that student-centred activities are the key to quality teaching. She aims to teach in a way that results in students being actively engaged in thinking about (and discussing!) molecular biology problems in the classroom, even though those classrooms are sometimes very large. This approach is designed to make students apply their understanding, even if at a basic level and without a laboratory, to enable students to fully internalise knowledge. Students in Heather’s classes are often trying to interpret experimental data or design simple experiments. She trusts that students are ready to try challenging activities with higher order thinking, as long as they are trained and supported and the expectations are clear and consistent.
Heather has been researching ways to confront student misconceptions in the classroom in a way that allows them to rethink their understanding. She has been leading a research project funded by a University of Melbourne Learning and Teaching Initiative grant, to trial different ways to change student misconceptions in a range of different science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and a range of different educational situations. She also runs an Education Research Group within the School of Biomedical Sciences, to support academics who wish to carry out Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and be recognised for their achievements and innovations. One aim of this is to promote the roles of Teaching Specialist academics within the university.