Faculty Spotlight – Ryan Cullen

Ryan Cullen is currently the Field Supervisor and a part-time faculty member in the Food and Farming Program with the school of Hospitality and Horticultural Science. But Ryan is not a newcomer to Durham College. In fact, not too long ago he was a student in the DC Horticulture Food and Farming program. Ryan is a staple on campus; he worked in Bistro 67, on the farm as a student, and held the position of student governor on the board of Governors.

“I take a hands-on, student-centered approach focused on experiential learning and meaningful outcomes”

Through a student-centred experiential learning focus, Ryan’s approach to teaching and learning ensures that students gain critical thinking and problem solving skills necessary for the workforce.

“Part of my role as the Field Supervisor and Faculty in our Horticulture program is to integrate everything we are doing on the farm into the curriculum and learning outcomes. I try to create real world scenarios where students are active participants in our farm production model. I work closely with our program coordinator to find creative ways we can work with faculty and students to integrate labs and lab outcomes into farm operations” says Ryan. This approach to the Food and Farming program allows students to feel that they are part of the process; it provides them with an understanding of the importance of procedures that have real work outcomes. Ultimately, this experiential learning allows students to integrate theory and practice into their craft.

“I like to give them the principles, skills and theory, then give them the autonomy to make their own decisions, solve their own problems and think critically about how to approach a task or project”

Aerial photo of the farm at Whitby Campus, which is part of the Food and Horticultural Program
Aerial photo of the farm at Whitby Campus, which is part of the Food and Horticultural Program

Focusing on having students think critically, solve problems, and engage in real world scenarios with meaningful outcomes has also resulted in increased engagement from students. As Ryan states, “we’re lucky in Food and Farming to be immersed in the everyday functions of a working farm. It’s easy to create scenarios that require students to work together, solve problems and think critically. I like to give them the principles, skills and theory, then give them the autonomy to make their own decisions, solve their own problems and think critically about how to approach a task or project.” Ryan is providing students with a safe space to ensure that they hone their skills, preparing them for the workforce.

Through the pandemic, Ryan has recognized that this approach remains essential, and that engagement, although complex when in a remote environment, can still be achieved. Ryan identifies that remote teaching requires dynamic teachers, since everyone learns differently. “It’s about being able to adapt, evolve and adjust your approach. I think there are all kinds of advantages to an online model. I’m embracing it and finding new and creative ways to deliver content and keep students engaged. Many of them have already been living in a virtual world, to me it’s about finding the channels to connect with them and leveraging the platforms they’re already engaging on” says Ryan. Meeting students where they are in terms of content, interests, and communication platforms is essential to effective teaching and learning.

“It’s about making yourself available outside of class time”

Hand in hand with this is the need to develop peer to peer support allowing students to connect outside of class time. Ryan achieves this sense of community by encouraging students to use the discussion boards on DC Connect, collaborate on projects, share resources, and work together. However, Ryan also acknowledges the role that the teacher plays in providing the spaces for students to connect: “it’s about making yourself available outside of class time. Answering emails promptly, quickly connecting virtually to give some support, and creating shared spaces online where students can connect with each other while also leveraging tools like YouTube to connect students to other portals that reflect the topics we are learning.”

Thus, technology is a key part of Ryan’s teaching and learning strategy. Although the labs for the Food and Farming program have continued in person, lectures are delivered remotely. Ryan uses many different types of technology to engage his students; he uses shared documents for real-time collaboration, videos, and demonstrations. Yet, many of these teaching resources were already part of Ryan’s practice and delivery model in the classroom. As he states, “the move to a virtual lecture format has actually made it easier to demonstrate things as all students are already on their computer and online. Before, not everyone brought their laptops to class.” Ryan’s preference is to demonstrate skills and techniques in the classroom, focusing on the application of theory. Ryan provides students with a PowerPoint as a resource to leverage and then asks students to spend their class time working collaboratively while he walks students through the processes, skills, and techniques required to get the work done.

Just as students in the Food and Farming program focus on critical thinking and problem solving, Ryan approaches teaching in much the same manner. He sees teaching as an opportunity to find a means by which all students are engaged and learning—no easy feat to be sure. So, what advice would Ryan provide others also working to improve teaching and learning?

“Be dynamic. Use all the tools available to you. Embrace the virtual world and find creative ways to connect with your students. Everyone learns differently and that means you need to have several different ways to deliver your content. Be resilient. It’s a strange and difficult time. You need to evolve and find new ways to be effective.”