By Fred Sgambati (’83)
The Acadia Alumni Association is pleased to announce that Dr. Juan Carlos López is the recipient of this year’s Acadia Alumni Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Dr. López has taught biology at Acadia University in the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science since 2014 and has made a dramatic and lasting impact that resonates deeply throughout the department and with his students. Compassionate, down-to-earth and approachable, he has an innate ability to understand and connect with his students, many of whom have noted his teaching acumen and the infectious passion he brings to his vocation.
Alumni Association President Donalda MacBeath (’75) thanked the selection committee for their diligence and applauded Dr. López on being named the 2021 Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching recipient. “The Acadia student experience is fundamental to the University’s success as an institution, and faculty members like Dr. López are one of the primary reasons why Acadia is consistently ranked among the premier post-secondary institutions in Canada. His caring and collaborative approach to learning embraces the tenets of diversity, equity and inclusion to ensure that each student feels valued and respected, establishing a standard of behaviour that students model and later represent as members of the Acadia alumni family.”
Dr. López’s teaching philosophy is remarkably straightforward: “As a science educator my main objective is to use interactive learning to create an environment in which learners integrate knowledge by asking and answering relevant questions. I guide learners to assimilate their own knowledge with the new information – not only to understand new concepts, but to critically construct new conclusions.”
Students appreciate that his primary goal is their success, “and he continues to seek it out with respect, patience and compromise,” notes Helen Allen (’21) and Keeler Colton, co-presidents of the Bio Society. Danni Harper (’20), a biology grad student who worked with him as a teaching assistant (TA), says Dr. López “has led by example and instilled in me an absolute joy of teaching.”
Dr. López has made a strong impact in research as well, supervising 10 students in independent research topics and co-supervising two honours and one master’s student. Five of his six publications at Acadia have students as co-authors, including two papers on teaching. His teaching excellence was recognized last fall when he received the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science (FPAS) Teaching Award 2020.
His teaching innovation springs from creating new labs, pedagogical approaches and training workshops that focus on issues relevant to students today. A good example was the implementation under Dr. López’s supervision of a new module on Mi’kmaq Traditional Knowledge constructed by Leah Creaser, honours student and President of the Indigenous Student Society of Acadia. This lab was paired with a lecture by Keptin Jeff Purdy (Acadia First Nation) and was well received by biology majors.
Creaser says, “I expressed my concerns about being a Mi’kmaq student in the lab and feeling disconnected because there was no recognition of native plants and their uses culturally in Mi’kma’ki. Juan Carlos allowed me to take on a research topic to manipulate the lab to incorporate the importance of Mi’kmaq Traditional Knowledge, and then implemented this as curriculum in his lab, overall making the relationship that has for so long been severed between Mi’kmaq and academia a respectful one for me.”
Kristen Noel, master’s student and graduate Teaching Assistant for introductory bio labs supervised by Dr. López, adds, “Dr. López ensures that all of his students are aware that Acadia University is in Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq nation, and what this means. This past year, he did a wonderful job incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge into the labs. As budding scientists, it is imperative that we understand the value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and use it in scientific research, outreach, conservation planning, and wildlife management.”
Additionally, while adjusting to online teaching this year, Dr. López prioritized working with smaller groups of students in the online labs so that students would have a more personal connection with Acadia faculty. He also created an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) workshop for the biology teaching assistants, with participation from the Equity Officer, the Indigenous Student Advisor and the Wong International Centre that was later included in a campus-wide TA training program. This workshop was eye-opening and helped TAs discover the importance of an inclusive learning environment. EDI is a major focus of Dr. López, and his commitment to inclusive learning has opened the door for some thought-provoking discussions in the biology department.
Harper concludes, “Juan Carlos is the kind of teacher that helps you to shape your future; the kind you will never forget. He is the kind of teacher that every teacher should be.”