SOI Educator Dr. Pat Maher on the 3M Fellowship and experiential learning

Dr. Pat Maher, SOI educator on the recent Antarctic expedition was recently awarded the 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

This is Canada’s highest teaching honour and recognizes Dr. Maher’s commitment to excellence in teaching through problem based and experiential learning. Best known for his field courses, Dr. Maher engages and challenges students to respect nature and to learn with all their senses. This approach has not only benefited his students but has also enriched the learning experience for SOI alum on expeditions.

Dr. Maher received this award as Associate Professor, Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management Program at UNBC. He recently joined Cape Breton University as Associate Professor of Community Studies where he plans to continue his work connecting students to nature.

Pat Maher (small)
(c) Students on Ice / Mike Beedell

Q: What is your teaching background and what led you to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum?

I guess my teaching background is that formally I don’t really have a teaching background. I never did a Bachelor of Education or an Instructional Skills Workshop (2 of the tickets usually held up for teachers in different settings of Higher Education). I just love to teach and learn. I’d say my informal teaching background is that I worked at outdoors centres and summer camps before and during my undergraduate studies in Outdoor Recreation at Lakehead University, and around about the same time I started instructing at the Canadian Outward Bound Wilderness School (now OB Canada) outside of Thunder Bay. Being in this environment showed me how to be a great facilitator and that’s then how I’ve always approached my university teaching – more as a facilitator, mentor, friend than a preachy, know-it-all professor. Experiential learning just came naturally in this process, and I got involved with the Association for Experiential Education, a great organization to nurture this type of philosophy/practice.

Q: What is your teaching philosophy?

This is actually a tough question. I guess in a sentence, my philosophy is to allow students to be curious, self-directed and responsible for their learning. I encourage reflection, critical thought, asking questions, calling out theories – or rather showing why they might be incorrect from your perspective.

To learn more about Dr. Pat Maher’s teaching approach, read his article in Maclean’s  3M Fellow Dr. Pat Maher on why good teachers take risks

 Q: How has experiential learning benefited your students?

I guess one huge success factor is letting students be in nature – just giving the time to look, smell, touch, taste vs. trying to inundate them with facts/figures. Whether it’s in the classroom or in the field I think conventional higher education just overwhelms students with scheduling and information, when they might be better served with the time and space to simply experience it for themselves.

One good example of this for me was my 2011 field school to Haida Gwaii – I purposely didn’t create too much of a schedule, or at least I didn’t share it with the students. We just sort of were there – we had great walks in the forest, met amazing people, etc. – and learning happened. Maybe at first students thought I was being a slacker, but by the end I think they appreciated the space to drive their own learning, make their own meanings. A lot of this way of teaching comes from my experience with the Norwegian concept of Friluftsliv.

caption: Students on Ice 2013 Antarctic Expedition; (c) Students on Ice / Mike Beedell

Q: How do SOI expeditions enrich this learning experience for you and your students?

SOI sort of epitomizes what I try to do elsewhere. If every university course I taught had the logistical support that I get from SOI, teaching in higher education would be even more amazing. SOI helps with some of the practical pieces, but the people at SOI and the philosophy do equally as much to support me in how I want to teach. Overall, it’s a great fit, and one I’d like to continue in other locales.

Q: What does the 3M National Teaching Fellowship mean to you?

It’s a recognition of field courses, experiential learning, self-direction, caring about place – all concepts I’ve worked on from the fringe – all becoming topics of more mainstream importance. The award encompasses all faculty members, across all disciplines, across all of Canada – and to see Outdoor Recreation and Tourism (now Community Studies) up there with surgeons and lawyers is a wonderful thing. I think it also recognizes all the great students, colleagues, mentors, friends I’ve had over the last 10 years – we’ve all worked hard in the fore ground and the background to see some success.

caption: Dr. Pat Maher and Dr. Hans Gelter with Impacts of Tourism on Antarctica course students; (c) Students on Ice / Mike Beedell

Q: What’s next?

For me the next step is how I leverage this in general, and how I work with it at my new institution. Joining CBU is a great new adventure. The pedagogy I enjoyed using in 1, maybe 2 classes, a year at UNBC I can employ across all my teaching. So while I was in the process to get this award I was also deciding to take a risk and re-invent myself outside of my content-based research area and enter a process-based teaching area. I’ll still be able to do my research on polar tourism/recreation, but now my teaching is more comfortable and consistent with my philosophy.

In terms of leverage – I think I just have a bit more credibility now as a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Administrators, policy-makers, etc. may listen to my voice – preaching experiential learning and connection to place all that much more. I hope it doesn’t change anything about how I interact with colleagues and most importantly students.

Students on Ice is proudly supported by bv02.

This website was made possible by a generous contribution from the Leacross Foundation.