Aarthi Ashok’s passion for cell and molecular biology comes across in her teaching.
“I’m a detail-oriented person, and I love the way little machines work,” says Ashok, an associate professor, teaching stream, in the department of biological sciences at U of T Scarborough.
“When I first started learning about how different cells become specialized and come together to build tissues and organs that sustain the life of an organism – I was absolutely hooked.”
When teaching her students about these microscopic cells and machines, Ashok tries to channel that enthusiasm and excitement by engaging her students to work actively and collaboratively on creative assignments.
Her unique approach to enhancing the student experience has landed Ashok a U of T President’s Teaching Award. The award recognizes sustained excellence in teaching, research in teaching, and the integration of teaching and research.
“My approach to teaching is in many ways a partnership with my students,” says Ashok, who joins Professor Jeremy Lopez from U of T’s department of English, and Professor Micah Stickel from the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, in receiving this year’s award.
“Teaching isn’t about me conveying knowledge, it's about developing skills that can help students process and integrate new information to help them achieve success on their own,” says Ashok.
“When you create an assignment that gets students excited, eager to participate, and learn from and with their peers, I think that’s when teaching can lead to effective learning.”
Her passion and creativity for teaching includes developing opportunities for students across courses and disciplines to work collaboratively. One interdisciplinary assignment she designed for BIOC10H-Cell Biology: Proteins from Birth to Death involves biology and art students collaborating to create art pieces that engage the public on certain aspects of biology.
“As an educator and a scientist, I'm most proud of when I can design a project, try to make it better every year, and then assess and reflect on whether it has been effective or not,” she says.
She’s also developed community-based, experiential learning opportunities for students in her fourth-year seminar course Pathobiology of Human Disease. The project involves students creating an interactive presentation for a broader community audience around interesting topics in biology. The assignment was so successful that it’s since been expanded to a broader STEM initiative, involving instructors from Environmental Chemistry, Mathematics and Computer Science.
Winners of the president’s teaching award also receive an annual professional development allowance of $10,000 for five years and are designated members of the U of T Teaching Academy for a minimum period of five years. The academy meets regularly to discuss matters relevant to teaching and offer advice to U of T’s vice-president and provost.
“I'm really excited about the opportunity to have a broader impact in terms of speaking to the culture of teaching at the university,” says Ashok, who in the past has also received a UTSC Principal’s Faculty Teaching Award and a U of T Early Career Teaching Award.
Ashok actively mentors both graduate and undergraduate students, and these students have shared in numerous publications, conference presentations and awards. She has produced more than 30 teaching-related manuscripts, workshops, and presentations – many of these with student co-authors.
“I try hard to design these creative learning opportunities because of the value I place on the interaction and the energy I get from being around students at UTSC,” she says.
“What I learn from them every term is astounding – so definitely a shout out to my students to thank them for the amazing experience I’ve had as an educator.”