Case #15: A Service Learning Partnership Between UTM and Ontario Secondary Schools


RESEARCH AREAS:Science education, problem–based learning, service learning


The purposes of this project, now entering its second year, are to:

  • provide experiential learning for undergraduate chemistry students interested in science education;
  • introduce secondary school teachers to Problem–Based Learning (PBL) pedagogies; and
  • better prepare secondary school students for the expectations of University through use of PBL, an inquiry based and active learning pedagogy


This service-learning project enables undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (ROP) students to develop PBL materials for use in Grades 11 and 12 chemistry courses and assist teachers to facilitate their use in secondary school classrooms. The ROP students research PBL pedagogy and the secondary school chemistry curriculum, then select a topic from the curriculum, define their learning objectives and create a real-world scenario in which to imbed their problem. Students then create Teachers’ Notes with complete solutions for the quantitative aspects of the problem and suggest a range of solutions for the qualitative and open-ended aspects. In implementing their topic ROP students work with a teacher to facilitate use of the problem in the classroom (or in campus laboratories for problems with experimental components), and prepare their problem in a web-ready format for mounting on the PBL website.


Our action–orientation in initiating this project was to provide an experiential learning opportunity to our ROP students while building a bridge to teachers and the teaching in secondary schools. It is instructive to assess the project through the lens of The 5–Pillar Model of Educational Leadership (Fields, Kenny & Mueller, 2019). The project requires pedagogical research on the part of the Principal Investigator (PI) and the co–supervising post–doctoral fellow (PDF) as well as by the ROP students, and has been reported on at both local and national conferences. By preparing chemistry learning materials for others, ROP students significantly enhance their own knowledge of the discipline. While each student creates their own problems, they present their progress to the ROP group in regular meetings and critique and contribute ideas to each other’s work in a highly collaborative fashion. Affective qualities are crucial in these meetings, in which the PI and PDF model suitable modes of academic discourse and constructive criticism. Knowing that their original work is going to be used by secondary school students is empowering to ROP students and, along with knowing that their work is going to be published on the website, makes them attentive to the accuracy of their work and to the means of communicating it. In their reflections, students refer to this experience as both challenging and rewarding, with the highlight being that their PBL problems – their original creations – were being used in secondary schools. The service–learning component distinguishes this experience from those that they have had in their other courses. These aspects, when taken together, reflect components of teaching excellence. Another feature of this project is to host a PBL workshop for secondary school science teachers, to share our collective resources and enhance their ability to generate their own PBL materials for their classes. This aspect of mentorship and empowerment applies also to the PDF who is assisting with the project. In Canada, opportunities for chemists who are interested in a career in science education are very limited at the PDF level in chemistry departments. Participation in this project should help to strengthen the pedagogical content knowledge of PDF’s and make them more competitive for teaching-focused positions.


The project has created a mutually beneficial collaboration between the University and local secondary schools. Teachers report increased student engagement and curiosity when working on PBL problems. All teachers have expressed a desire to continue their participation. Research Opportunity Program (ROP) students strengthen their foundational knowledge of chemistry while developing skills of critical thinking, communicating and collaborating. Secondary school teachers have been introduced to a new science pedagogy and through the workshop for teachers we hope to broaden this Problem-Based Learning (PBL) community and provide teachers with the skills to make the initiative sustainable. From our first cohort of ROP students, one presented her work in the Science Education Division of the Southwestern Ontario Undergraduate Student Chemistry Conference and received 2nd prize for her oral presentation. Applications to participate in this ROP project have increased by 150% from the first to the second year of its offering. The PDF training has also paid dividends. Both of the PDFs who have participated in the project were also entrusted to teach a course as PDFs and one has subsequently secured a teaching position at a major Canadian university.

“Research Opportunity Program (ROP) students strengthen their foundational knowledge of chemistry while developing skills of critical thinking, communicating and collaborating. Secondary school teachers have been introduced to a new science pedagogy and through the workshop for teachers we hope to broaden this Problem-Based Learning (PBL) community and provide teachers with the skills to make the initiative sustainable.”


Fields, J., Kenny, N.A.,& Mueller, R.A. (2019). Conceptualizing educational leadership in an academic development program, International Journal for Academic Development, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2019.1570211

Poë, J. (2015). Active learning pedagogies for the future of global chemistry education. In J. Garcia-Martinez & E. Serrano-Torregrosa (Eds.), Chemistry education: Best practices, opportunities and trends (279- 300). Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.

Overton, T. L., & Randles, C. A. (2015). Beyond problem-based learning: Using dynamic PBL in chemistry. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 16(2), 251-259.


Headshot of Judith Poe

Judith Poë, Fellow of the Chemical Institute of Canada, is a graduate of Imperial College, London. A recipient of many teaching awards including the inaugural University of Toronto, Mississauga (UTM) Teaching Award, a 3M National Teaching Fellowship, the Union Carbide Award for Chemical Education, and the University of Toronto’s President’s Teaching Award, she was cited in McLean’s magazine as “one of the University of Toronto’s most popular profs.”


Poë is Professor, Teaching Stream in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) with a cross- appointment to the Department of Chemistry at the St. George campus, University of Toronto. She teaches the first-year, general chemistry course at UTM, as well as an upper year course in bioinorganic chemistry. She recently introduced a chemistry course for non-science majors, ‘The Chemistry of Human Health’, and is working on the introduction of a Medicinal Chemistry Specialist program. Poë had the honour of serving as the first female President of the Canadian Society for Chemistry and, more importantly, the first President whose scholarly activity was in the area of chemistry education. Currently she is Chair of the Board of Directors of the Chemical Education Trust, a registered Canadian charity that provides scholarships, awards, and seed money for new initiatives in the chemistry education of both students and the general public.



Canadian Chemical Education Trust, Chair of the Board of Directors
Chemical Institute of Canada, Division of Chemistry Education
American Chemical Society, Chemical Education Division
Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education