Award for cultural change as makerspace gets students thinking like a physicist

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Dr John Debs from the Physics Education Centre has won a 2017 Australian Award for University Teaching, announced by Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham.

Dr Debs was rewarded for his work in the development of the new Mike Gore Centre for Physics Education, which champions a blended teaching approach. The new Centre incorporates inquiry-based learning, hands-on design, building and making, and encouraging independent thought and critical thinking – skills Dr Debs terms “thinking like a physicist”.

“I’m honoured and delighted,” Dr Debs said.

“I’m energised to get into teaching in 2018, with a bunch of new ideas and disruptions in the pipeline,” he said.

Most significant among the innovations has been the ANU Makerspace , which now boasts membership from five of the seven colleges at the University. The Makerspace has allowed students and staff of all ages and backgrounds to work on projects and share knowledge and ideas, with a range of innovative equipment and resources at their fingertips.

“I’m very keen to leverage the award and the prize money to keep pushing educational practice to effect change at ANU and beyond,” said Dr Debs.

ANU won five of the 2017 Australian Awards  The other ANU winners are Associate Professor Katrina Anderson (ANU Medical School), Dr Jason Payne (ANU Research School of Social Sciences), Dr Anna Von Reibnitz (ANU School of Finance and Applied Statistics) and Jeremy Smith (ANU Research School of Engineering).

Dr Anderson, an experienced GP, teaches young doctors and medical students to be compassionate and to treat patients holistically, rather than just treat the disease.

Dr Anderson works with refugees at Companion House in Canberra, where young doctors also learn how to listen and empathise with patients.

“Medicine is about an encounter between two people,” Dr Anderson said. “Patients are the people who teach us so much of how to be a good doctor. Doctors are often not listening to patients very well.

“I became really passionate about this whole environment and how we can create doctors who are really patient-centred and actually listen to patients and grow and learn just as much from their patients as from each other.”

ANU Doctor of Medicine and Surgery student Hamed Shahnam said Dr Anderson was an inspiring teacher.

“She has opened my eyes that a patient is not just a diagnosis but also encompasses a wide variety of other aspects of their health, whether socio-economic, cultural influences, political influences,” he said.

“This has really come across for me having spent time with her in her clinics in Companion House, which looks after a lot of the refugee population in Canberra. It’s been a really eye-opening experience to see that the more holistic approach to patient care, not just the science and the hard medicine.”

ANU Research School of Engineering lecturer Jeremy Smith has pioneered a humanitarian approach to engineering education by taking students to communities overseas and domestically where students apply their knowledge to help solve real-world problems.

“My teaching philosophy is inspired by the power of engineering to transform lives and create positive change for individuals and entire communities,” Mr Smith said.

“The need for positive change is urgent, with hundreds of millions of people lacking access to water, shelter, energy and health care and every country, including Australia, vulnerable to natural disasters and the consequences of climate change.

“Engineering and technology can address these challenges and risks, but only when engineers place human wellbeing at the centre of their practice.”

Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) student Angharad Llewyellyn said the humanitarian approach to engineering had inspired her to pursue her engineering studies.

“It gave a real life application of engineering in day-to-day context and how you can really make a difference both in the local community, domestically and overseas. And so it was from taking this subject that I decided I really wanted to stick to engineering and really progress with it,” she said.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt congratulated the Awards for Teaching Excellence winners.

“ANU strives to provide the best possible student experience and relies upon the amazing work of our exceptional teachers,” Professor Schmidt said.

“On behalf of the University, I congratulate Katrina, Jason, Anna, Jeremy and John on their well-deserved recognition.”

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