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‘Immense energy and passion’: Innovative U of T faculty recognized with Early Career Teaching Awards

Ceremony at Massey College celebrates university and external teaching award winners

Faculty of Arts & Science Professor David Liu among those recognized

Photo of Sohee Kang, Jamie Kellar and David Liu holding their Early Teaching Awards plaques.

Three of the four U of T faculty members who won Early Teaching Awards hold their plaques at a ceremony this week for all recipients of internal and external teaching awards. Photos: Nick Iwanyshyn.

No textbook is a substitute for an attentive and enthusiastic teacher.

Each year, the University of Toronto recognizes faculty members in the early stages of their careers who go above the call of duty to help their students learn. The four winners this year – Jayne Baker, Sohee Kang, Jamie Kellar and David Liu – have all found inventive ways to encourage their students to engage with classwork.

Along with the recipients of other teaching awards, both internal and external, the four winners were celebrated at a ceremony at Massey College on Wednesday afternoon. Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr commended the award-winning faculty for their “immense energy and passion.”

U of T’s performance in university rankings, as one of the top public institutions of higher learning in the world, isn’t just due to its research output, but to the high calibre of its teaching, she said.

Each of the Early Career Award winners described how they get students interested in the course material.

Kang, a statistician in the department of computer and mathematical sciences at U of T Scarborough, says she tries to get to know her students each year, both during class and through surveys. She has developed apps to foster participation. One app asks students to answer multiple-choice questions online, giving them instant feedback and an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

She also holds “online office hours” using another app, which she designed with an eCampusOntario grant, that allows students to ask questions anonymously. Research by Kang and her colleagues shows that online office hours have increased engagement by female students and international students.

Kellar, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, teaches a variety of courses, predominantly in mental health and addiction. Also a pharmacist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, she introduces her students to real patients in the classroom so that her class learns to overcome stigma and biases.

“Students can read a whole bunch of things about diseases and medications in a book, but what they can’t get is what it feels like to live with the diseases,” she says. The invited patients tell students about their illnesses and the pros and cons of their experience receiving care. In recent years, the guests were around the same age as Kellar’s students. “When they see these individuals, there’s an immediate connection,” she says.

Outside of class, Kellar organizes mental health movie nights, followed by discussions on how diseases are portrayed by Hollywood. They have screened Christiane F., which is set in 1970s Berlin and touches on drug addiction, and Silver Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper in the role of someone with bipolar disorder.

“I’m really excited about what I teach every day,” Kellar says.

So is Liu, an assistant professor, teaching stream in the department of computer science. After a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Liu was drawn to computer science because of its practical applications. “What I like to tell my students is: Computer science is really the study of how you go from being just the user of technology to creators of technology,” he says.

He teaches a range of courses, from a first-year introduction to programming to upper-year theoretical classes. No matter the course, he shows his enthusiasm by being animated during lectures and by preparing detailed speaking notes that anticipate his students’ questions.

He has also written more than 100 pages of course notes for his classes, which he makes available to students through the U of T Bookstore.

“I always try to convey why we’re learning certain things, why I personally find it interesting and why I hope they do, too,” he says.

Baker, an assistant professor, teaching stream, in U of T Mississauga’s department of sociology, couldn’t attend the ceremony, but she has said that she wants her students to be as enthusiastic about sociology as she is.

“I never want them to think that they’re just a number,” she said.

About a quarter of students who take her introduction to sociology course later choose to major in the field, according to her department.

Her research interests include how to maximize student learning and engagement, particularly in sociology. She uses her findings to tweak her own courses and contribute to curriculum development on a wider scale. She involved students in a review of her own second-year sociology of education course, looking for ways to include more gender and sexual diversity.

She’s now working with her colleague Nathan Innocente on a sociology textbook, which she describes as the first of its kind with a “digital-first” focus on interactive exercises and video.

This was the fourth year that U of T has recognized outstanding early-career teachers with the award, each worth $3,000. The award is meant for faculty members who are within the first five years of their academic appointment and have completed two years of teaching at U of T.

U of T News asks: What’s one thing you hope your students take away from your course?

Photo of Jamie Kellar

Jamie Kellar: “That folks who have mental health disorders are people as well and deserve the same kind of care and treatment that any other patient with a chronic disease deserves.”

Photo of Sohee Kang

Sohee Kang: “I want students to really enjoy statistics. It’s not a boring subject – it’s fantastic. It allows you to connect your theory to the real world.”

Photo of David Liu

David Liu: “It doesn’t have anything to do with a particular topic, but rather a cognitive skill about how to learn – how to learn independently without me being there. I like to tell students in all my classes that…at some point you’re going to go off into the real world, [where] you’re supposed to be learning stuff without having someone to hold your hand.”