Queen's University

Dr. Kimberly Woodhouse

[Kimberly Woodhouse photo]

Dean
Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science

Professor
Department of Chemical Engineering

I like mentoring and watching the curiosity and the love of learning take hold.

Kimberly Woodhouse was on the way to becoming a medical doctor when fate stepped in and she was introduced to the world of chemical engineering. But her interest in life sciences has stood her in good stead, both in her teaching of biology to engineers at the University of Toronto and as she developed her research program on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

Problem-based learning...

While studying at McMaster University, Woodhouse became interested in the problem-based, active learning that was pioneered at their medical school.  At the time, McMaster's Chemical Engineering department was also one of the few departments in the country that used the same approach. "Problem-based learning means that you approach the way you design and deliver a course from a problem that needs to be solved, rather than from the subject that needs to be taught."

"If you want to have engineering students learn biology, you might start with a medical problem that needs to be solved. For example, a large number of patients have lower back problems associated with degenerative disc disease. You have been asked to make a new material to act as a replacement disc. This large problem would drive the overall design of the course and would be supplemented with smaller problems to build the knowledge base. The students would not only learn the biology but also many other subject areas as they worked to solve the problem."

The technique works well with students who have varying backgrounds because they all have strengths in different areas and, for some, there is often material they don't actually need to learn. It allows them to learn what they need to know in order to solve a problem as opposed to being told what they need to know.

"Of course, you have to pace the class to take into account those who do not have the background and to make sure they get where they need to be to have success with the material," Woodhouse says. "It's a different type of teaching. It allows you to expose students to more open-ended problems with multiple answers, problems that require the use of judgement to solve and which then strengthens the ability of the students to solve complex problems more rapidly than with subject-based learning."

Woodhouse worked in industry for a time as a staff chemical engineer and later as a production manager, running a plant. Early in her career she also became involved in management training. It was there that her love of teaching first blossomed. (Her father, also a teacher, teased her and said that she just took a long route to the same job he had!) "I like mentoring and watching the curiosity and the love of learning take hold,"she says. "Students challenge you and give you new ideas about how to teach and undertake research. Their energy and enthusiasm keeps you young. And as a professor, you get to help students reach their full potential."

And reach it they do. When Woodhouse started a bio-tech company in Toronto, two of her employees were former grad students. Another former undergrad and grad student of Woodhouse's, Lauren Flynn, is now Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at Queen's. She says, "I felt that Dr. Woodhouse encouraged independent thinking and did an excellent job at promoting student engagement. I also felt that she was a caring individual who was sensitive to the needs of her students. I also appreciated having Dr. Woodhouse as a mentor throughout my graduate studies and I felt that she successfully balanced supporting my development as an independent researcher while providing guidance and support when needed."

Woodhouse was honoured by the Society of Higher Learning (The Alan Blizzard Award) for a team-taught course for first year design at the University of Toronto. Now she and some colleagues are writing a textbook around that course for first year engineers. But these days, Woodhouse has less time to teach because of her duties as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. But she still teaches the team development and communication section of the APSC 100 first year design course – a course with real projects and real clients. "Design is integral to engineering. Applying creativity and knowledge in science, mathematics, economics and social sciences to solve the world's problems -- it's what engineers do."

There are also new changes on the horizon for engineering teaching. "The Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board is moving to an outcomes-based evaluation. Students will be evaluated under 12 attributes which cover a broad range of subject areas from mathematics, economics and social sciences to professional skills. There will definitely be a more enriched ability to communicate and an ability to work across the disciplines."

"This move to outcomes-based accreditation is a challenge for students and professors alike and will require significant changes to the way in which courses are designed and delivered. The Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Queen's is coordinating an initiative to help engineering programs across the country adapt to the new accreditation requirements."

Profile by Patricia Henderson