A passion for education

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

By Jasmin Neil


Anita Woods, PhD, has a passion for education, learning, and her students. Her multiple teaching awards are proof of her hard work and dedication. Blending her two loves, technology and education, Woods is constantly searching for new ways to integrate technology into her lessons, keeping content fresh and interesting. She also reads each student evaluation and comment she receives, making changes to lesson plans based on student feedback.

Woods’ passion for education started at a young age. Growing up one of four children in a Mennonite family, Woods did not have a typical upbringing. Her parents immigrated from Mexico and encouraged their children to further their education and follow their dreams. All of the Woods children have gone on to big careers: civil engineering, race car design, interior design, and professorship.

“My parents weren’t allowed to go to school; they grew up on farms in Mexico. As soon as my cousins got to grade eight, most of them emigrated back to Mexico to work on the family farm. School was always this special thing we got to do that other family members didn’t,” Woods noted. She readily admits it is one of the main reasons she has never actually left school.

Her love for learning grew, taking her to a two year master’s degree with the plan of teaching high school science. Woods found an ideal opportunity with Frank Beier, PhD, and the discovery of a new love—research. During her time in Beier’s lab, Woods extended her master’s to a PhD and began to think about postdoctoral research and a career as a traditional academic.

However, the week before her PhD defence, Woods learned her mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Three months later, her mother lost her courageous battle."

I don’t even know how I defended my thesis to be honest. All the things I had planned were put on hold. Frank (Beier) was really great. He let me stay in his lab while I tried to put everything together. It was a difficult time to be making major decisions.”

Luckily, a year-long teaching contract opened up in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, giving her time to figure out her next steps. During her contract, Woods received excellent reviews, leading to an offer of a full-time teaching position with one catch —having to give up research. It was one of the toughest decisions she’s ever had to make, but one she has never regretted. “Looking back, when I think about it, everything was the way it should have always gone. I think I would have really missed out on teaching, something I love to do, had I pushed forward with Plan A.”

Naturally, she has not been able to leave her love of  research behind. Working with Jay oftus, Instructional Designer, Strategic Technology Commons, she is trying to better understand how to evaluate the student experience. Each year she works to improve her teaching methods and lessons, bringing in new technology and updating material based on feedback and evaluations provided by students.

To keep content interesting, Woods has introduced some new technology into her lessons including the use of Twitter and iPads, the latter allowing her to instantly upload any diagrams or formulas she uses to her class’ online learning site.

Woods believes bringing technology into the classroom is a good thing. “It forces me to think about what I’m saying as I say it, slows the pace and allows students to build with me, but I do it on an iPad instead of a chalkboard. I haven’t invented anything new—I’m just using what’s available a little differently.”

The next big advancement she is going to try is augmented reality. This fall,  students will receive cards in their study guides which, when placed in front of a webcam, will show a virtual model of an organ on a computer screen.

It is obvious teaching is Woods’ calling. This year, she made the University Students’ Council (USC) Teaching Honour Roll, and received both the USC Award of Excellence inUndergraduate Teaching and the Marilyn Robinson Award for Excellence in Teaching. These awards, in her words, “mean everything”, and help validate all her hard work, especially after what she calls the toughest teaching year she’s had.

With only five years of teaching experience, Woods is focused on the future, searching for the next way to improve her lesson plans and teaching methods. It seems Woods has finally found a way to mix her two loves—education and research—into the perfect blend.

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