The University of Newcastle, Australia

Arming students with the skills to tackle ‘wicked’ issues

Monday, 16 March 2020

As an inaugural recipient of a DVC(A) Merit List Award for Teaching and Learning Excellence, Senior Lecturer in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences, Dr Bonnie McBain, shares how she is arming her students with the skills for tackling the big challenges of our time.

Photo of Dr Bonnie McBain
Dr Bonnie McBain

Science needs a more diverse workforce and our role in supporting that is critical.  Our University is distinctive in its connection to the local community. We open the doors of higher education to a more diverse student community and rightly so. Our challenges are to support students who come to learn with many competing work and life responsibilities.

I want my students to have the skills and attributes to contribute to some of the big challenges of our time such as sustainability, poverty and obesity. To address the complexity of these skills they will need to work in transdisciplinary teams that enable them to engage authentically with stakeholders who have different expertise, worldviews and interests. This collaborative work will require emotional maturity, deep listening, and an open but critical mind. Without these attributes we won’t be able to address such ‘wicked’ issues.

The teaching journey is one where you never stop learning and that’s the most exciting part. I’ve been working at the University for 10 years. I come from a sustainability background but have recently also been working on a revision of our Faculty’s Bachelor of Science. This has given me the opportunity to work with many inspiring teachers across the science faculty and the university.

Great teachers understand how people learn and actively engage their students in immersive learning experiences that are real and relevant.  I’m very lucky in that I work with many such educators who are courageous in applying an innovative yet evidence-based approach to their teaching practice. They also understand that learning can feel uncomfortable and uncertain – they acknowledge this publicly in their classes so that students understand that re-orientation is a positive sign that new understanding is forming. I feel very supported by our leadership in our Faculty of Science, who understand the importance of high-quality learning for our students and have invested in it.

The future challenges in teaching are very similar to the challenges that society will face. These challenges include more digital time, less direction or leadership (requiring more autonomy), greater uncertainty and greater rates of change. Building a supported student community in the midst of these societal changes will be challenging but is definitely doable if we give students time to plan.

About Bonnie

A Senior Lecturer in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences, Bonnie is at the international forefront of the emerging field of Sustainability Science and science education. A much-awarded educator, Bonnie coordinates and teaches four core courses annually, in the newly revised Bachelor of Science.


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