Innovations in teaching: James Thomson

Burning pine cones in Convocation Hall, bringing students to Vietnam in search of plants and pollinators

Convocation is a time to celebrate U of T's students. Although they may make it look easy, graduating from one of the top-ranked universities in the world is a remarkable achievement.

When the 18,000 members of the Class of 2016 cross the stage at Convocation Hall – including an estimated 13,500 grads this spring – they'll be looking back at years of exams, essays, lab and field work, experiential learning, volunteer stints, creativity and hard work. And almost zero snow days. 
On the stage with them – or following via live streams and Instagram feeds – will be some of the professors and instructors who also invested countless hours in their students’ success.

Who are the teachers who helped make this day possible? You can learn about some of them in our Inside Con Hall series from student writer Krisha Ravikantharaja.

And you’ll meet a few more in this series on Innovations in Teaching.

In this instalment, U of T News writer Arthur Kaptainis profiles Professor James Thomson of the Faculty of Arts & Science. 

“Very conveniently, the university always plants beds of two species of Salvia,” said Professor James Thomson, one of three winners of the 2016 President’s Teaching Awards.

“The blue-flowered one is adapted for bees and the red-flowered one for hummingbirds, so we can talk about those adaptations, and do choice experiments where we offer both types to the local bees.”

The veteran of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology was talking about the expeditions he leads in the blocks surrounding the downtown Toronto campus as part of EEB 440: Plant-Animal Interactions.

“To show how the red species is suited to fit a hummingbird, I bring along a mummified hummingbird in my shirt pocket,” he added. “Students generally are surprised by its appearance.”

Thomson spoke to U of T News from the West Elk Mountains of Colorado, where he and his wife spend high-altitude (and snowy) early summers amid the flora and fauna of the Rockies.

Thomson has taken students as far afield as Vietnam in search of interesting flowers and pollinators, and keeps them busy in the laboratory during winter months with experiments involving bee colonies.

“I fall into the ‘showing is better than telling’ school,” Thomson explained. “I certainly am a big believer in demonstrations as the best way to make a memorable point."

He admits to having been influenced by an instructor at the University of Chicago who jumped chest-deep into an icy pond to demonstrate the architecture of a muskrat lodge. “He was being more dramatic than necessary,” Thomson writes in his teaching statement. “But the drama made the facts indelible.”

Outdoor treks are not feasible for the more than 1,900 students who typically enrol in BIO120: Adaption and Biodiversity, but in-class demonstrations as magnified on a big screens are part of the teaching protocol.

What better means of illustrating morphological adaptation than to burn a pine cone on camera and watch the release of seeds as the scales crack open?

“Students in the front rows can smell the hot terpenoids,” Thomson writes, referring to compounds that give certain plants their scent. “Implanting unforgettable memories then gives me a fighting chance to instill some less dramatic considerations about how organisms are adapted to their environments.”

Specific examples illuminate general principles. Potentially dry information about atmospheric circulation patterns is better retained if illustrated by the ability of the Wandering Albatross to exploit the westerly winds to which it is adapted.

Enrolment in BIO120 regularly exceeds the capacity of Convocation Hall, so Thomson and University Professor Spender Barrett have convened an evening section in the Earth Sciences Centre to accommodate the spillover.

It is a credit to their teaching ability that some students attend classes in both venues. “My reaction is basically surprise rather than satisfaction,” Thomson said of the implied compliment.

Whether they attend both classes or settle for one, students experience a robust teaching style animated by humour as well as Thomson’s current research interests.

“It has always been policy in BIO120 to encourage lecturers to incorporate their own research,” Thomson explained. “When I joined the course, I enthusiastically adopted this approach as a way to personalize the course and to get students thinking more about science as a process rather than a body of facts.”

Not that Thomson is indifferent to the “telling” aspect of teaching. He is in the process of preparing the third edition of his custom-written textbook for BIO120, Struggle for Existence. “I tell my students that the lectures are my attempt to make the material memorable, and the book is my attempt to make it clear,” he writes.

Student questionsare answered in tutorials or on the discussion board of the Blackboard app (which Thomson regularly monitors). In EEB 440, a class of about 30, questions are an essential part of classroom dynamics.

“I consider answering questions to be as valuable as delivering my prepared material,” Thomson said. “My sometime co-instructor Megan Frederickson and I assign a portion of the course grade to participation, mostly to encourage questions and discussion.”

And his students say it gets results.

“Professor Thomson walked the class through the birth and development of new ideas in the scientific community,” Jessica Phillips, an ecology and evolutionary biology specialist from University College and a 2016 Rhodes Scholar, said of EEB 440.

“We saw the resistance and backlash to novel theories, and were taught to critically evaluate studies in the context of ideas that were being debated at the time. We were also encouraged to think of novel approaches and to test various theories.”

In a letter of support for Thomson’s award, Christopher Boccia, a Victoria College major in ecology and evolutionary biology and new grad,wrote: “His presentations are always well-organized and his incorporation of humorous anecdotes and props make them both enjoyable and effective pedagogically, as his examples tend to clarify concepts and make them more memorable.”

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