(June 28, 2012) — Dr. Mary Ann McLean would trade bricks and mortar for nature’s classroom any day.
Whenever possible, the St. Mary’s University College biology professor conducts classes in Fish Creek Provincial Park, located a few steps from campus.
She and her students are often spotted in the park taking water samples, identifying plants or observing wildlife as she shares her knowledge – and her love – of nature with them.
“At St. Mary’s, I love coming up with creative and interesting ways to get the students really excited about the natural world,” Dr. McLean said.
“And here, because of the small class sizes, we can do labs that wouldn’t be possible at larger institutions.”
Her enthusiasm for science began when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph. She was uncertain which major to pursue until a colleague steered her towards soil biology, which eventually became her specialty.
“It is amazing the number of microscopic creatures living in the soil! I was hooked after seeing videos of them moving around and eating each other,” she said. “The astonishing thing is that even microscopic animals have behaviours.”
Since accepting a position as Associate Professor of Biology at St. Mary’s in 2008, Dr. McLean has revised BIOL 451: Biological Conservation, a popular course taught in conjunction with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association.
Dr. McLean is currently Chair of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, and Faculty Representative on the St. Mary's University College Board of Governors.
“Co-teaching with a conservation specialist enhances the impact of the course,” says Dr. McLean. “Another important feature is that students develop their own real-world conservation project in collaboration with a local environmental NGO.”
She worked recently with colleagues in the history and English departments to design and teach IDST 333: Reading the Landscapes: Local Explorations in Literature, Ecology and History, a new interdisciplinary course that explores Southern Alberta’s wilderness spaces from various perspectives.
“One of the reasons I like the liberal arts environment is that you can do some really interesting interdisciplinary work,” Dr. McLean said. “There are so many creative ideas here at St. Mary’s and a real opportunity to work collaboratively.”
St. Mary’s team of science professors launched Discovering Science, a unique science outreach program for junior high school students, in 2009.
Students come to the St. Mary’s campus twice a month during the academic year to discover the joys and process of science through hands-on experiences. The students take part in experiments reflecting faculty interests in biology, chemistry, physics and engineering.
The successful program has attracted full enrolment and various government grants since its inception. Dr. McLean said that beyond a desire to share science with young students, she has an ulterior motive.
“We hope to turn junior high students on to science while they can still change their minds about high school and university course choices. Eventually, we’d love to see them as students here at St. Mary’s in one of our Bachelor of Arts degree or science transfer programs,” she said.