‘Experiential learning will increasingly become a critical pedagogical component of the student’s experience here at UBishops. Providing opportunities for students to work in their field of study is invaluable for them to get hands on experience and apply their learning. Incorporating and devising experiential opportunities for students of all levels and in all fields is an exciting challenge.’
–Dr. Claire Grogan, Associate VP Academic.
Noah Toomey is about to start his fourth year as a Chemistry major and minors in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems (SAFS). This summer, he works both on the SAFS farm and as a research assistant to Dr. Alexandre Drouin in the chemistry lab.
He arrived at Bishop’s in 2018, after researching small universities at the recommendation of his parents. “My parents both attended a very small school in Vermont … and they suggested that I take a look into schools like it.” Originally from Toronto, he strove to escape the concrete jungle and found his place in the Eastern Townships.
A big attraction for him was the fact that his program is so small. “My incoming class was somewhere between eight and ten [students] … currently there’s less than twenty students total.” The size of the program creates interesting social opportunities and close relationships between professors and students including potlucks at professors’ houses. “There’s not many people that can say they can do something like that, and it can only happen because of the tiny experience here, how tight-knit everybody is.” The small size also allows unique opportunities, which he points out by the fact that, during our interview, he is alone in the lab. “Some of my friends from Toronto, they go somewhere like McMaster University, big-name schools, and they’re like ‘the education at Bishop’s isn’t all that.’ And you know what? On paper, from a research standpoint, maybe it’s not as great as some of those schools, but you get different experiences and, depending on who you ask, even better. I walked in and I was already a TA for one of the labs in my second year and that was not because I was looking for it, but because [professors] need [assistants] and they handpick people who they like to have around … You get opportunities that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.”
As Dr. Alexandre Drouin’s research assistant, he works directly in the lab. “I’m more or less just executing what he needs me to do. It’s a research project he’s worked on for a while … I have a series of reaction to get to whatever point I need to get them to, and I’ve done that same series three times now. Of course, the first time you do it, there’s a lot of questions but as you get more comfortable with it, he’s just in his office and I’m left in here to do my own things, read the procedures he gives me and provide him the results that he’s looking for.” Toomey got the position directly through Drouin by asking him for work back in 2020. “I knew from talking to students in years before me that he tends to hire at least one student to have here over the summer and do either a research project or experiential learning class with him. So, I asked about it and he said ‘oh yeah for sure we can do that’… and then COVID happened and that got called off.” But earlier this year, Dr. Drouin called him back and asked if he still wanted to work in the lab and Noah immediately jumped at the opportunity.
His work on the farm debuted in a similar fashion. “I asked [Dr. Jane Morrison] if she had any hands-on experiential learning type courses running on the farm over this summer because that’s how I learn, that’s what I wanted to do!” At that point, no experiential courses were established on the SAFS farm, but a month later, she contacted him again with a brand-new project. “The only reason that this experiential learning course exists for two of us … is because [I] asked for it. It didn’t exist otherwise and they wouldn’t have done it.”
He is currently working on a research project under Dr. Helen Jensen. “[We’re] just doing a bunch of research plots. We started the first week and we planted a bunch of different varieties of potatoes, like ten or so varieties. It’s the first year kicking off the farm program, the sustainable agriculture is becoming a major, and they’re gonna have a lot more on-farm experience for students. For now, we’re just setting the foundations for that … We’re getting the soil fertile, we’re planting things, we’re keeping journal logs of it … It’s getting hands-on experience, with legitimate farm tools, which, coming from the city, I’d never even seen some of these things!” Although his SAFS formation could become a career, it is much more personal for Noah. “[I’m] trying to learn how to do these things on a smaller scale so I’m able to do it on my own in the future. It’s a great hobby but it also makes you more self-sufficient.”
Noah does not plan on pursuing another degree after his bachelor’s or continuing into research but admits that it is a great experience to have. “If I want to go work in a commercial lab somewhere, I absolutely could. I’m getting countless hours of experience with all of the tools … I’m the one out of ten that’s here right now doing this, and that separates you, it makes you a better candidate for things going forward … Everybody’s been through the labs that are attached to lectures in your undergrad, but not everybody gets the opportunity to do hands-on research project for hundreds of hours.” He adds that it helped him with things like “organization and time management,” which are things he historically struggled with. He also explains that everything in the lab costs a lot, and it pushes him to be more efficient. “I don’t want to waste [Dr. Drouin’s] money, I don’t want to waste the school’s money on the materials … It makes you be really on top of things because you want to perform well. It gives me something to work at and take pride in … It’s kind of just making you grow by throwing you into the fire.”
When asked how important the experiential learning aspect of his education is, he says that it is “absolutely essential” and the best way to learn. “I’m a very bad reader. I don’t absorb information well when I’m reading it so, if I get a textbook with a bunch of sciency words and definitions that I haven’t seen before, I don’t really want to put in the effort to read that, to understand it, to go back over it, make notes about it. That’s absolutely not me. And once I go to take some of that textbook knowledge and translate it to the real-life practical uses, I struggle … Without [experiential learning], I would absolutely be useless as a chemist.”
Noah plans to graduate in 2022 and take some time off before joining the workforce. “I plan to take, at the minimum, a year of being absolutely useless to the rest of society … I think the COVID stuff has just made me very burnt out and not wanting to study anymore.” After a well-deserved break, he would be interested in entering the world of brewing, which he already explored in Bishop’s brewing experiential learning course. “I’m for sure gonna do more brewing in the future … I had a lot of fun with the brewing stuff and that’s also a big reason of why I chose Bishop’s, is because of that specific program.” Brewing allows him to express himself through science and create something different every time. “[B]rewing, at the end of the day, as much as it’s a science, it’s also an art.” But through all these plans and uncertainties, one thing he wants to avoid is a desk job. “That’s what I’m not gonna do, I’m not gonna graduate and sit behind a desk. That I can tell you for certain.”
Go to our website to learn more about the Chemistry program and experiential learning: